The cover of Eric Benet's new album, "Love & Life".

Let’s face it. No matter how big Eric Benet becomes, he will forever be known as The Guy Who Cheated On Halle Berry. Although I almost don’t feel sorry for him on account of his being a complete idiot, I’ve gotta say, the guy makes pretty good records-although he only appears to release them when the moon is green. Following a 3-year absence, Benet has returned with a solid fourth album entitled Love & Life.

This album won’t cause you to jump up and down with glee, exclaiming “Thass mah sheeeeeit!!!”, but it’s definitely one of 2008’s better R&B efforts. Benet has a pleasant tenor voice that occasionally slides into falsetto, but it’s not showy or overcooked. His music follows the same basic plan. It’s contemporary, but as a man in his late thirties, Benet takes pains to not embarrass himself by making a crunk record or pairing with T-Pain or Lil’ Wayne. It’s a mature record, with love, not sex as the primary subject matter. However, most of it still sounds like it can be played comfortably on urban radio amidst the likes of Alicia Keys, Usher and Robin Thicke.

The overwhelming theme of this album is falling in love-or falling in love again. Benet apparently loves drama, because after divorcing the Best Actress Oscar winner, Benet has taken up with Manuela Testolini, who some of you may know as the recently divorced former 2nd wife of Prince. Hopefully, Benet stays out of Minneapolis, lest he catch a Cuban heel in the eye. Anyway, his relationship quite obviously informs some of this album’s best work. Spanish Fly has a smooth Latin vibe, perfect for getting your mambo on, while Iminluvwichoo (stupid title aside) takes it back to the early Eighties, with a cute alien-sounding figure (think “Jam On It” by Newcleus) and a heavy 808-drum machine-featured beat (think early Jam/Lewis like The S.O.S. Band’s “Just Be Good to Me”).

Don’t Let Go has the album’s most obvious hip-hop influence, with woozy Stevie Wonder-esque keyboards juxtaposed against a knocking drumbeat, a light trumpet sample and some subtle scratching. However, the influence is still tasteful, and there’s not a
guest emcee to be found on this album. Benet brings out his falsetto for the seductive Chocolate Legs, the subject matter of which should be fairly self-explanatory just based on the title.

The album’s only real misstep comes with Everlove, an overtly sappy duet with female singer Terry Dexter. It’s a little too melodramatic for my tastes, and Benet’s not a singer who does sappy ballads well. He fares better with the smooth, seductive approach. He fares much better with the midtempo acoustic track You Sing to Me and my favorite track on the album, Love, Patience & Time. You figure a guy who does videos barefoot and covered “Dust in the Wind” on a previous album would have a little bit of hippie in him (not that there’s anything wrong with that), and this song takes a series of character studies (a guy who lost his leg in Iraq and then turned around and won a marathon) to prove how love, patience and time have a way of soothing personal tribulations. It’s a heartwarming song and completely necessary in this day and age.

Seems to me like Benet will always be the underdog, but he’s managed to carve out a little niche for himself by simply making good music. He might not be able to dance like Ne-Yo or Chris Brown, and he’s not an artiste like Maxwell or D’Angelo, but his body of work has been quite solid in his decade and change of recording, and Love and Life has turned out to be one of 2008’s most pleasant surprises. If you’re an R&B fan who complains that they don’t make ’em like they used to anymore, you might want to give this one a shot. I’m sure even Ms. Berry would find something to like on here.

Eric Benet’s website.