Aijuswanaseing, the debut album from Philadelphia's Musiq Soulchild, marks him as worth paying attention to, even if the record often slips a little too readily into contorted vocal gymnastics on an otherwise simple melody, or the pristine layered harmony -- two elements that have become all but the aural fingerprints of contemporary soul.
About every fourth song here is, unfortunately, going to sound predictable both to non-fans (who tend to think it all sounds alike) and to those who've closely followed the rebirth of contemporary soul music via its more progressive and revolutionary artists like Lauryn Hill, D'Angelo and Erykah Badu. The complaints of the first camp are easy to dismiss; those of the second, not so easy. Songs like "You and Me" and "Just Friends (Sunny)," Soulchild's first single, betray a bit too much vocal "sweetening," a too-common production tool which smoothes the voice but also guarantees it a homogenous and undifferentiated timbre. (This is the same reason no one above the age of 8 can distinguish among the Backstreet Boys and 'N SYNC and 98 Degrees on aural evidence alone.) And when Soulchild writes a "girl can I get with you" song, there are absolutely no surprises to be found. Arrangement, chord progression, your-love-is-like-the-ocean metaphors -- mark them off on the checklist.
If that sounds harsh, it's a commentary on the too-frequent predictability of the form, and there are certainly artists more established than Soulchild who hold rigidly to that formula. What sets Aijuswanaseing apart are the moments when Soulchild doesn't stick to the path, and these are frequent enough to counteract the occasional lapse into predictability.
Most refreshing is Soulchild's obvious talent for writing songs that expand the vocabulary of the genre. "Girl Next Door," the leadoff track, manages to revive the old now-that-we've-grown-up jam so that it sounds new. The slow cut "Settle for My Love" has a complicated chord structure worthy of Stevie Wonder, whereas "'L' Is Gone" is a straight love-is-a-drug bounce, buoyed along by minor-third intervals and a maddeningly memorable hook.
Ah, those important life choices. Like the choice to go on or throw in the towel, delineated on "You Be Alright," the album's kindest and most compassionate track: "If you can take it/You surely can make it," Soulchild intones, over the sparsest of arrangements. And if nothing else, Soulchild has crafted a record that contains refreshingly few instances of macho posturing -- the Achilles' heel of contemporary soul -- in favor of songs that detail the complex relationships between friends and lovers in everyday language. Those moments make the pedestrian segments of Aijuswanaseing all the more frustrating, but they also indicate that Soulchild can color outside the lines when he wants to. In any genre, that's a talent that indicates further potential.
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