So I sat down to write this thinking I was going to write something and then I skimmed some reviews and saw this record categorized as “smooth soul” and it got me thinking: this record sure didn’t strike me as “slick” or “smooth” when I listened to it. Why did it strike others that way?
I think it’s safe to say that this is a polished record. There certainly isn’t the kind of grit you get in Stax recordings, for example. But everything is relative, and the thing that really stands out to me about this album is how there is a vibe that is considerably less “finished” (for lack of a better word) than most of the contemporary R&B world. The reason this record is viewed as one of the major Neo Soul releases is because it sounds less poppy and slick slick – and a I guess more jazzy – than what was dominating R&B at the time. Sure, this sound might be polished compared to the origins of the genre, but virtually everything is. Maybe what I’m really striving for is “organic” – this music sounds organic in a way that so much contemporary R&B does not.
The material is pretty good. It’s not as good as his later stuff in my opinion, but it’s certainly enough to carry D’Angelo’s particular approach to singing, a style which is just a little bit coy (again for lack of a better word). I don’t know what it is about his delivery but he always seems like he’s trying to undercut the catchiness of the song. That is not something that bothers me – rather I find it endearing for some reason.
Honestly, had I listened to this record out of context, I doubt I would have liked it. It’s definitely slicker than I think it is, and it is not the kind of record that I generally like. But something about D’Angelo’s approach to his music at this stage of the game seems so distinct to his contemporaries that it just feels like a breath of fresh air. It probably isn’t in actuality. If I just listened to enough 1995 R&B maybe I’d know enough to say that this could be a lot grittier. (Say, like his later music.) But all I know is what hit the top of the charts at the time. And this is far more idiosyncratic and fun than that stuff.