Being from Philly — OK, OK, suburban Philadelphia — I really want to like Musiq, one of the much maligned city’s favorite musical sons. But Soulstar has fallen as flat with me as did earlier efforts, like the annoyingly-titled Juslisen and Aijuswanaseing. It’s not that Starsoul is in any way atrocious. Talib Johnson’s voice is strong, the music is just funky enough not to be boring, and the production is as clean as you’d expect for a record placed firmly in the neo-soul genre. In theory, Soulstar should be easy on the ears — at worst a guilty pleasure, at most some good turn-down-the-lights music. Yet I found myself struggling to get through it without wishing I was listening to something with substance, like, say, a Justin Timberlake single.
I think I can rightfully expect to be challenged by my soul music because of Lauryn Hill, who taught us that R&B had not been made obsolete by rap’s artistic and commercial successes. Her Miseducation, that ur-text of neo-soul, was evidence that gorgeous voices, singing from the gut about peace, love and understanding, could still be as meaningful as they are sonically pleasurable. That record had me thirsting for more from her — and sent me to my record collection to dig out my Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye discs. The fact that she happens to be a strong woman singing about being a strong woman was just icing on an already really tasty cake.
Musiq, in contrast, makes me pine for 50 Cent or something thuggier. That’s what listening to 70-plus minutes of castrated whining about women will do to you. Sensitivity is one thing, but Soulstar‘s unbelievably sappy lyrics make Johnson sound like a bitchy, begging little Chihuahua on a leash.
Witness the following selection, from “Youloveme”: “Or is the love you have for me really true or is it just an act / ‘Cause when you’re hard at work and when I’m hard at work / And we can’t talk / We just page each other with our sexual wishes/ But when we’re spending quality time and your pager rings / I wonder / Who could be when you answer laughing at your reply / Or is it that I’m just being suspicious.”
I’m not sure what this does for soul, neo- or otherwise. Sure, Johnson is talented, but this seems a lot like a minimal effort outing, carried by largely overheated vocals about having families, getting played and “where our emotions can grow if we let them go.” In general, the sentiments are embarrassing, as is Johnson’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You,” which serves only to show how sexy Musiq is not, his version being totally devoid of the original’s lusty edge.
Unlike Hill’s persona, Musiq is never strong or, in fact, anything but a whimpering bootlick. During Soulstar‘s best moments, Johnson’s voice gets a little air under its wings and soars like Stevie’s, but those times are few and far between. Far more often, it’s dragged down by sodden lyrics that sound like a pussy-whipped man’s end of some hellish cell-phone conversation.