Sunday, November 19, 2006

Tevin Campbell: An Appreciation

by Jason King

Hard to believe that 1990s r&b prodigy Tevin Campbell turned thirty earlier this month (November 12th). Harder still to believe it's been nearly seventeen years since he made his debut on the charts.

In the late 1980s, the Waxahachie, Texas wunderkind was discovered by funk flutist Bobbi Humphrey, recruited by Warner exec Benny Medina, and marketed as a new jack Jackson 5-era Michael. Ubiquitous Quincy Jones featured the eleven-year-old on "Tomorrow," the optimistic lead single from the Grammy-winning Back on the Block ensemble album.

Tevin's high-reaching, eager tenor - heard in all its glory on the stratospheric power ballad "Tell Me What You Want Me To Do" from 1991 solo debut T.E.V.I.N. - distinguished him instantly from more mundane teen pop idols of the time (The New Kids on the Block and Tommy Page come to mind). His nasal and slightly southern sound - delivered with disciplined attentiveness to melody line and minimal riffing - perfectly suited him to technically challenging, lushly synthesized slow jams.

Tevin was, in retrospect, the ultimate male interpreter of Babyface songs (next to Kevon Edmonds): soaring tuners like "Can We Talk" and "I'm Ready" (from his 1993 sophomore set) of the same name remain adult contemporary quiet storm classics despite deliberately adolescent lyrics and bubblegum sentiment. No surprise there: like progenitor Michael, Tevin sang with a mature intensity and professionalism way beyond his age, probably cultivated during his early days as an amateur night competitor. He was less successful with uptempos: except for Prince-produced 1990 Graffiti Bridge hit "Round and Round" (Tevin also co-starred in the film), the singer seemed straight-jacketed by 1990s hip-house rhythms ("Uncle Sam"). Seduction jams ("Shhh") also seemed to conflict with his immaculate, goody-two-shoes image.

Clearly inspired by female r&b divas, Tevin quotes Aretha Franklin vocal licks at the end of his remake of "Keep on Pushing" from 1994's A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield. (Actually, Aretha's 1972 Amazing Grace was the first album his mother, manager Rhonda Byrd, gave him.) His 1996 third album, the Rahsaan Patterson-Jamey Jaz composed Back to the World, was a commercial disappointment that now deserves critical rethinking, particularly given the uncanny similarities between Tevin and Rahsaan's otherworldly vocals. Raised in the church, Campbell never recorded a gospel album, though his near-classical performances on songs like "I Know My Redeemer Liveth" from 1992's Handel's Messiah: a Soulful Celebration, and "O Holy Night" from A Very Special Christmas 2, remain two of his best musical moments.

The poetic lyric to "Infant Child," the haunting gospel outro on 1993's I'm Ready- "No matter what I become, I will always remain my Lord's supreme infant child" - suggests, in hindsight, future demons. On the heels of an inconsistent forth album, 1999's Another Way, Tevin was publicly arrested in Los Angeles for soliciting sex from an undercover male police offer. Tevin's career unraveled soon after, punctuated by a comment by Chris Rock on Wendy Williams' Hot 97 radio show in which he remarked that rising superstar Usher was great because he was like "the straight Tevin Campbell." Tevin hasn't released a studio project since.

Chris Rock's remark - homophobic in that it capitulates to a kneejerk machismo that tragically limits the stylistic options for black men - is a sad reminder that torches in soul music haven't been properly passed on. While Usher and progeny like Omarion and Chris Brown draw on kinetic dancing skills to liken themselves to Michael Jackson, they're not hair-raising singers in Michael's mold, despite what the publicity machines may tell you. (For his debut album, Usher was originally positioned as a 'bad boy' teen alternative to Tevin.)

Tevin, on the other hand, seemed born for little else than singing. (In fact, he was never much of a dancer, resulting in stilted choreography on televised appearances in the 1990s like Arsenio.) For my money, Tevin was the most technically accomplished young male r&b singer to debut in the 1990s, but I've never heard any recording artist since mention him as an influence. In that vaccuum, the choices for today's teen male mainstream r&b singers have become increasingly limited - most are hip-hop identified pop lockers who happen to croon, and they don't leave much room for the divos.

Tevin is currently appearing in Hairspray on Broadway, and on his Wikipedia profile, there's mention of an upcoming project featuring A-list producers like Scott Storch although there's no confirmation of it anywhere else on the web at this time.

This article is also published at

Currently Spinning: Ciara, "Bang It Up," 2006

From the forthcoming "The Evolution" sophomore set by "princess of crunk 'n B" Ciara , "Bang it Up" is a dastardly funky club track concocted by ATL's current It guy, rapper-turned-producer Polow da Don, who's also responsible for Ciara's deliriously sensual "Promise."
One of the most interesting crunk-pop producers working today, given that he's been hired by everyone from Mya to Gwen Stefani, Polow Da Don has worked with songwriting partner Sean Garrett (Usher's "Yeah") to bring us some of the most gloriously campy tunes this year, including mid-eastern sex romp "Buttons" by The Pussycat Dolls, militaristic funk blaster "Blindfold Me" by Kelis and bombastic double entendre "London Bridge" by Fergie.
While he has a fair amount of range (listen to haunting, airy "Runaway Love" by Ludacris featuring Mary J. Blige), Polow Da Don favors loud, pot-banging quantized drums and day-glo, softcore cartoon themes: he's like urban contemporary's answer to Russ Meyer.
Ciara's new album, "The Evolution" drops on December 5th.

Russell Taylor: neo-soul is not dead!

Occupying the same D.I.Y, below-the-radar space in adult contemporary r&b as acts like Eric Roberson, Marlon Saunders, Abby Dobson, Donny, and Anthony David, Philly's Russell Taylor has been pounding the pavements to launch his latest release Somewhere in Between.
Sporting a baby hair 'fro that recalls Maxwell circa 1997 and a clear, reedy tenor reminiscent of Rahsaan Patterson, New Yawk resident Taylor covers a lot of ground on his latest acoustic set - from the plaintive guitar folk of "Can't Cry" to the minimalist end-of-the-road soul of "Maybe I'll Stay" to the furious Voices of East Harlem-esque funk of "Can I Sing" and "Hey Yeah." While the album could have been trimmed slightly, it's highlighted by the ready-for-quiet storm "2B Loved," replete with shimmering, harmonically complex background vocals and a post keys-solo modulation. No easy feat.
Check out Russell at his myspace page or at CD Baby.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Jason King is Now Blogging

Despite the high intensity peer pressure of many of my blogging friends to join the blogosphere, It's taken me a long time to get here - mostly because I've never had the time. I've always wondered how people have the time to write and post so much. The reason I decided to launch Passed The Curve is because when I first started writing freelance articles for music magazines I enjoyed the idea of being able to discover new and exciting talent. That usually meant artists who hadn't even registered a buzz on almost anyone's consciousness. Funny enough, Tyrese - who I'd seen in a Coca Cola commercial - was actually one of the first artists I interviewed, long before his first record ever came out on RCA.

That desire to expose and help build new talent - to always be ahead of the curve - has underwritten almost everything I've done, from launching my own branding, consulting and managment company, to helping architect The Clive Davis Department at NYU, where it's amazing to recruit and be around students who you know will one day change the industry.

Passed The Curve is the chance for me to write about artists in r&b, hip-hop, and electronica (and other genres that I'm feeling) who you may not have heard of, but that you probably will in the near future. It's about reporting on artists who need more exposure, which is like 95% of the market. And about being able to write about issues in black music that are topical. There'll also be an appreciation section, in conjunction with my friend David Nathan's super-amazing, all-purpose site for all things soul music,, focused on tributes to artists of the past, and who knows what else. For all that, I'll definitely find the time.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Gerald Levert: An Appreciation

Twenty years into a career that updated Barry White's heavyweight sex symbol prototype to the increasingly slick r&b sounds of the 80s, 90s, and beyond, Gerald Levert passed away from a heart attack at age forty on November 10th. The cause has yet to be officially tied to his hefty size, but his youthful age and the unexpectedness of his death seem like obvious clues. Given the tumultuous, well-publicized struggles with weight that have plagued and defined the careers of soul singers like Luther Vandross and D'Angelo, body image seems like one of those elements in soul music (like the struggle between sin and salvation) that renders male crooners both iconic and tragic.

Born in Cleveland into Philly soul royalty (the son of O'Jays vocalist Eddie Levert), Gerald released a successful string of light r&b albums for Atlantic in the 80s as part of the group Levert along with brother Sean and singer Marc Gordon. He kickstarted his solo career in 1991 with Private Life, a solid showcase for his churchy, muscular rasp. Vocally less distinctive or subtle than quiet storm king Luther Vandross, Levert nonetheless followed in Vandross' footsteps as an "alternative" sex symbol - minus the glitzy excess. Handsome, well-groomed and unabashedly rotund, Levert physically resembled the sort of down-home Joe you might encounter flipping steaks at a barbecue or cutting your hair at the local barbershop: vernacular appeal was part of his charm.

Though he chased crossover success with pop producer David Foster on ballads like "I'd Swear" and "I'd Give Anything" (and all of his solo albums from 1999 to 2002 charted in the pop top ten), Gerald Levert was a "soul man" down to his marrow. No one can forget his perennial appearances on BET Walk of Fame concerts where his sweat-drenched, stop-drop-and-roll antics during duets with divas like Patti LaBelle spontaneously ignited the audience into frenzy. No doubt he learned these boldly melodramatic stunts from touring with his father at an early age and being musically baptized by icons like James Brown.

Neither a sonic innovator nor a slave to the old school, Levert surfed the wave of r&b's increasing creep toward hip-hop in the 1990s. One of his biggest hits was 1999's outrageous domestic soap opera "Taking Everything," equal parts Timbaland drum 'n bass and R. Kelly melodrama. Levert softened his fondness for sassy confrontation and carnal themes with a heart-on-your-sleeve sensitivity that stemmed from late 60s Motown. (He not surprisingly appeared as a featured performer in the 2002 Funk Brothers documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown.) Part of that sensitivity was wrapped up in his contribution to r&b family values, given his extensive concert and recording work with his brother and father. What's more, Levert's 1997 and 2003 albums with Keith Sweat and Johnny Gill as part of the supergroup LSG featured cameos by Busta Rhymes, L.L. Cool J and Missy Elliott, helping to increase quiet storm's relevance to generations weaned on the decidedly harder sounds of hip-hop.

Levert's showy performance style may have obscured his formidable skills as an arranger, producer, songwriter, session singer and multi-instrumentalist for artists like The O'Jays, Teddy Pendergrass, Stephanie Mills and Patti Labelle. In that sense, he should be considered an r&b stalwart in the same way one might consider a composer-performer-producer like El DeBarge or Brian McKnight.

My favorite Gerald Levert-penned songs?

1994's "Practice What You Preach," a sly, old school shuffle written for and recorded by Gerald's progenitor Barry White. It remains a staple on r&b radio.

2002's "Funny," a neo-soul style gem. Despite strategically placed cameos by artists like Snoop Dogg, the quality of the songwriting on Gerald Levert's old-school throwback The G Spot turns it into a more organic project than many of the other neo-soul albums released around the turn of the millenium.

2000's "Mr. Too Damn Good," a superb romantic ballad that rivals some of the best Babyface writing. Plus, the title is a perfect way to describe Gerald Levert himself.

He'll be missed.