Before these last two months, I had only purchased two albums that would qualify as R&B music, which is my favorite genre. Those albums were the up and down Day26 release and Usher’s latest, which is good, though a bit underwhelming. However, with the release of Ne-Yo, Robin Thicke, Raphael Saadiq, and the newly released Evolver from John Legend, R&B is on fire right now. Money Mike and I discussed R&B music in the year 2008 in our latest Sound Dialogue.

GG: What was going on in the early parts of 2008 with R&B music? I’m sure there were a few releases that I missed, but nothing even tempted me to make a purchase. Are there any underdog R&B stories of 2008 that I missed, or was it just a weak first 7 months for R&B?

MM: You and I have sort of different tastes when it comes to R&B. There’s a very specific sound you like, which is the male groups and the male solo artists with a less alternative kind of sound. I like that stuff too, so maybe I should just say that we have similar tastes, but there are some artists I dig that you probably wouldn’t go for. There were a couple of sleepers in the early part of the year. Raheem Devaughn’s album was good, as was Van Hunt’s. But as far as contemporary R&B, things were looking bad until last month.

GG: I guess that’s how I should’ve stated it. Contemporary R&B. Conventional R&B. Whatever you want to call it. But I want to ask you something related. Why hasn’t there been much in the world of female R&B? Or is that another genre that I’m missing out on?

MM: The artists just aren’t there. Look at who’s out. Beyonce won’t be out till later this year. Mary put her album out last year as did Jill Scott. The only contemporary female artists worth a damn that released good albums this year were Erykah Badu and Estelle. Mariah and Janet tried too hard to be contemporary and failed. Well, not totally failed. Janet’s album was OK. But if you take all that away, really what you’re left with is the legends (Patti, Gladys, etc.) and Jennifer Hudson.

GG: Let’s start with Usher’s latest album. Solid album. Unspectacular. I know you enjoyed it, but you still have to admit, there was something missing. What do you think that something was?

MM: It was intangible. Confessions just had “it”, and I’m not sure what “it” was, but Here I Stand didn’t really have “it”. I memorized Confessions up and down, but on this album there are just 5 or 6 songs that I really like. Oh, and Confessions had one awesome song produced by Just Blaze, two very good songs produced by Jam & Lewis and one very good song by Robin Thicke, none of whom are on Here I Stand. Regardless of how popular he is, is a huge step down from Jam & Lewis.

GG: Amen about

Did Usher’s attitude shift have anything to do with it you think? He was very defensive about standing up for his marriage and his new lifestyle, and just seemed to be really sensitive to any sort of criticism about the way his life was going. And then there was the odd change of managers and the firing of his mother. I wonder if that had anything to do with the way the album was put together and the lack of “Usher-like” success.

MM: I just think it was a very mature, relationship-oriented album with a lot of slower songs, and the 16 year old kids watching “106 & Park” who loved Yeah! aren’t gonna get songs like that. Besides, Confessions had the whole Chilli drama behind it. Thank God, there wasn’t any manufactured controversy and it still sold a million, which is like 3 million in today’s market.

GG: Hmmm. I heard that a Chili solo album is coming out. Hopefully she doesn’t stir that stuff up again.

Ne-Yo also decided to make an album that was a bit on the mature side when it came to describing relationships. The Year Of The Gentleman is one of the more well rounded albums I’ve heard all year. What were your thoughts about Ne-Yo’s third album?

MM: It’s certainly the best album he’s made so far. It’s very well-constructed lyrically, and he varies up his sound a little bit, which I think was sorely needed.

GG: He’s a duel threat kind of artist. Strictly as a singer, after hearing his first three albums, what do you think his career is going to be like? Do you think he has it in him to be someone who can withstand the test of time?

MM: I think he has the goods. I’m reluctant to say he’ll have a long career, because he’s still derivative, but he’ll at least be one of those folks who has a few hit albums and then goes behind the scenes and makes the real money.

GG: Now let’s move over to former Tony! Toni! Tone front man Raphael Saadiq. He put out a very interesting album called The Way I See It which is definitely a throwback. And it’s not the kind of throwback album which mixes new school with old school. This album could’ve dropped in the 1960s. What did you think of it?

MM: This, I think, is where you and I sort of split opinions. I didn’t think it was a bad CD per se. Actually, I liked it. But, I think I liked it more because I was supposed to like it than because it was really good. I dug the Motown sound of it, but if I want to hear Motown, I can always go listen to a Temptations or Smokey Robinson song.

GG: I did enjoy it and it’s one of those “breath of fresh air” kind of releases. What was it that didn’t touch you? Can you even put a finger on it?

MM: It just sounded a little too derivative. Like he was trying too hard to make a Motown sounding kind of record instead of a Raphael Saadiq record with Motown influences. He’s made an excellent solo album before as well as some fantastic TTT albums. Maybe this one will grow on me with a few more listens.

GG: I wonder if he decided to go that route because if he made an album like Back To Black, which was definitely influenced by the Motown sound but then meshed with new styles of production, he’d seem like a copy cat.

MM: Yeah, I’m not sure why he did it either. I mean, it’s great because no one makes records like that anymore, but Amy Winehouse took a classic sound and added something to it. Saadiq’s not really putting a new spin on it.

GG: Let’s move on to an artist who you’d been talking about since before many people even knew he existed. Robin Thicke released his third solo album a month ago. How does Something Else compare with his first two albums?

MM: It’s good, not great. There were some songs I liked a lot, but the two singles – Magic and Sweetest Love are the two best songs on the album. This one is a lot more ballad heavy than his first one and it’s also a lot more mainstream sounding. It’s like he had to get rid of his rough edges to become successful. It’s still a pretty solid album, though. I don’t like it as much as Ne-Yo’s, like it more than Saadiq’s. Ah, can’t forget Eric Benet, either. That’s a pretty good record.

GG: Benet is another one I forgot about. Before we get to Legend, I wanted to take it back to something you said about Thicke. Why would he have to get rid of his rough edges? You’d think that after the success of his second album, he’d have a bit more freedom to do what he likes doing.

MM: He probably has the freedom, but I also think he wanted to have another successful album to ensure that he wasn’t a one-hit wonder in the eyes of most of the public. There’s not a lot of R&B guys out there who are successful with that eclectic of a sound, and his options seemed to be to be the next Marvin Gaye or the next Jamiroquai. I think the next Marvin Gaye is the way to go for success.

GG: How much freedom does John Legend have? With Evolver, I felt that he changed his style just enough to stay interesting, but not too much to where Legend fans wouldn’t think it was a Legend album. Once Again was brilliant in my opinion. Does Evolver come close?

MM: It’s not brilliant. It is very solid, one of the year’s better R&B releases. The way I see it, it’s better than the first album and not as good as the second one.

GG: I agree with you. I think we love different songs on the album but it’s very good. I think Legend understands at a really deep level how to balance that commercial and critical success. He may not sell the most albums, nor will he get the most acclaim, but he definitely understands how to balance that.

Before we finish here, I want you to rank the top 5 R&B albums you’ve heard all year. I know that you’ve listened to them all. Hell, you even bought Wayne Brady.

MM: Don’t hate on Wayne Brady. That album was tight.

My top five, off the top of my head (and in no particular order), would be Van Hunt, Raheem Devaughn, John Legend, Robin Thicke and Ne-Yo.

GG: Thanks Money. I think we should do this again soon after Kanye’s next album drops. I think we’ll have a lot to say about that one.

Photo of Usher by tixgirl and shared via creative commons