Funny thing about being a mentor: The young genius you help today may be nipping at your heels tomorrow. No need to tell that to storied R&B producer Teddy Riley. Riley, in his umpteenth entry into the black-music market, has re-formed his doo-wop group Blackstreet, choosing to release its latest CD, Level II, at a time when his protégés have contemporary radio on lockdown.
Riley is credited with creating New Jack Swing, a sound that welded soulful vocals to hip-hop beats, in the early '90s. A decade later, Riley's creation has become urban music's DNA. Riley's influence is everywhere, most glaringly in the work of fellow Virginians Timbaland, Missy Elliott, and the Neptunes -- the omnipresent duo Riley discovered at a high school talent contest.
The problem with the modern urban genre Riley helped spawn, however, is that while the music is seductively edgy and profane, much of it lacks heart, making it far less than memorable. Riley, whose m.o. is to stay well ahead of the game, mostly steers clear of the new stuff on Level II as a result. While a few songs draw on the electronic sauce of 1996's Dr. Dre-produced megahit "No Diggity," the best songs on the CD are ballads. The wistful "Look in the Water," co-written by Riley and the Neptunes, slaps poetic lyrics over a sample of Simply Red's "Holding Back the Years." "Bygones," which features ex-member Dave Hollister, offers lush acoustic guitar and finger snaps. "There are some things I wish that I could change," the group croons, "but if we're gonna move forward/Let bygones be bygones."
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The sound on Level II clearly is not self-consciously styled "neo-soul" (i.e., no brown leather, head wraps or ?uestlove anywhere in sight) or clumsily futuristic. That alone makes it noteworthy. Now let's see if Riley can get any airplay.