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Platform Snooze

Like the Democratic Party, Musiq Only Kinda Caters to His Black Audience

By Tony Green | Posted 2/25/2004

Musiq

Soulstar

Mixing music writing and politics is a tricky, all-or-nothing proposition. When done well, it can be stimulating and enlightening. When done badly, points are muddled, writing loses its flair, and articles take on the appearance of critical quickie meals (see the "What does it say about us as a society?" angle--an all-purpose space/byline generator for some two decades now). That's why I've generally left musicpolitik to the experts (Jeff Chang, holla). But after listening to the new album by Musiq, Soulstar, I can't help but feel that neo-soul artists have picked up a thing or two from the Democratic Party.

The Dems have long been criticized for taking the black vote for granted. "Outreach" goes no further than a few church appearances and a town-hall speech laced with "legacy of slavery" and "white-skin privilege"-type buzz phrases (prominent African-American Best Friend/Endorser/Drum Interpreter optional).

Millennial soulsters generally don't take their audience for granted (see MeShell, Joi, Bilal, Angie Stone, Omar, Glenn Lewis, et al.). But since said audience has often tuned out most of current urban pop music and now stumps from an "Anyone but Chingy" platform, they're funking beyond the call of duty.

In other words, they don't have to. Just drop in a few old-school references, approximate analog environments whenever possible, and the disillusioned music fans--urban and beyond--will line up for a touch of love. The same retro strategy propelled "New Country" in the '90s, a fact that, in itself, is cause for more than a bit of concern.

Musiq's claim to fame is, for lack of a better word, vibe. His tracks approximate the feel of middle-of-the-road urban-targeted ads: Every shorty is a dreaded dime piece with a bookstore gig. Every man is an introspective hip-hop Hamlet with reams of blank verse on life on the block and how he first fell in love with hip-hop. Every pair of baggies is creased immaculately, everyone makes beats on the steps of their brownstone, and it's always 11:30 a.m. Yes, Tamia, we can all hear you now.

Musiq, with an ear more attuned to chordal embellishment and textural coloration than melody, is the penultimate interpreter of this art-buppie Oz. His sonic palette consists of various shades of Whitfield, Wonder, and Ayers. His limited, almost casual vocals are more suited for serenading baby over fish tea than red-light emotions (anger, jealousy, undergarment-melting sexual desire). On Soulstar, the Philly resident tests the limits of his laid-back zeitgeist and comes up with about as good a general anesthetic as the FDA will allow you to buy.

How else to describe a song that begins, "Have you ever a day when nothing goes your way"? Or, in the case of "Givemorelove/Leaveamessage," "children need something with more substance and more meaning," an Up With People inanity that leads into a rumination on his answering machine? Sophomore year dorm-room scribbles? Contemplation without insight, rhetorical questions passed off as serious musings, all carried home by an almost numbingly monochromatic voice (think Keith without the Sweat) that in extended doses could drive Bill O'Reilly to claim ownership of the grassy-knoll bullet? All of the above, thanks.

Musiq is most comfortable playing the sensitive-shy Walter Mitty type on songs that are often addressed to an absent lover or other object of infatuation. But three albums in, the role is starting to wear. On "Forthenight" he takes a bite from Prince's flower child-playa notebook ("If I Was Your Girlfriend," "Let's Pretend We're Married"), and he touches on so many relationship clichés on "Babymother" that you want to slap him before his girl does.

These aren't serious demerits--if the success of commercial hip-hop has proved anything, it's that sounds matter more than words. Musiq's songs, laced here with sparkling keyboards, cudgeling beats, and TSOP-ish strings, are capable of rising on even the slightest hint of a hook or theme. "Womanopoly"'s rags to riches tale is worn as hell, but the coherent theme catalyzes a tune that would sound unfulfilled without it.

What a shame then, that he has failed to provide so many of his tunes with even the barest hint of direction. Especially when a slight effort would have made Soulstar a worthwhile treat for the legions of Clear Channel malcontents. Hey, even captive audiences deserve a little respect--ya heard, Kerry?

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