Contemporary R&B singers can be divided evenly into two camps: the style-over-substance troupe, who believe in futuristic production tricks and outré hairdos; and the neo-soul crew, who cling to classical vocal dexterity and the warm ooze of the Fender Rhodes electric piano. Alternately, you could divide the field another way and end up with only slightly different teams: those who count as a friend Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, the record-producing, Afro-wearing drummer of the Roots, and those who do not.
Anyhow, Philadelphia's Musiq and Cleveland's Avant plow the middle ground between these two sensibilities: Each carries around a bag of exhausted romantic platitudes big enough to hide Ruben Studdard inside, but each knows that vibe alone is not enough to convince Ms. Thing over for a night of whatever. Like R. Kelly, R&B's great schism-straddler (get your mind out of the gutter!), these guys write songs rooted in soul's fake book, get people to produce them with mild modernist panache, then sing them as though listeners can only take so much vocal frippery -- which is true.
Musiq is the "ambitious" one: The grooves on Soulstar, his third album, come with orchestral stabs and hip-hop grime. In "Womanopoly" he uses those elements to enhance a gratifyingly humanist yarn about a lady with bills and a shitty boyfriend and probably a great smile. His superfluous remake of the Rolling Stones' "Miss You" is less inspiring, but the Fender Rhodes truly delivers.
Avant is humbler on Private Room, also his third album; though genial, his yarns forgo Musiq's occasional specificity, and his efficient grooves never say more than he does. Except in "Have Some Fun," an earnest, dizzily key-changing entreaty to get loose for just a minute; the tune's sped-up piano hook and stutter-stepped beat provide a jolt that Avant's neutrality throws into sweet relief.
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