For the past few years, veterans in R&B and soul music have met a fork in the road. The two paths presented to them offer different ways to travel the ever-shifting landscape that is the music industry. One path—often guided by a major record label—is the pursuit of radio play beyond the bubble of Urban AC. Along this path, singers adapt to the rap-influenced sound that currently dominates mainstream R&B. On the other path, artists are usually supported by an indie label as they make music that's not too far removed from what fans have enjoyed from them in the past. This direction focuses not on relevance at all costs, but instead on creative control. Both paths can be dangerous. The former risks the alienation of a singer's core fan base, while the latter tends to forfeit exposure to the masses.
These diverging paths prompted Musiq Soulchild to introduce a musical alias, called The Husel, that replaced his bridges and falsettos with raps and auto tune. Many of his fans were disappointed in the move, seeing it as a complete abandonment of the identity they'd known for years. While some of his peers made similar changes to their music, Musiq made 2016’s Life on Earth—an impressive return to the signature sound that gave him his name as an artist. Now, he’s released his follow-up effort Feel the Real, a double album that treats fans as much as it challenges them.
Keeping fans' attention for the duration of a project is hard enough when it's 12 songs deep. By making Feel the Real twice this length, Musiq bets on the quality of each disc rather than the short attention span of today's fans. I normally wouldn't put money on those odds, but when I started the album and heard the title track, I was ready to eat my words. The song features Marsha Ambrosius, who also wrote it. She and Musiq display the talents that have granted them careers that span a couple of decades: smooth delivery, infectious vocal runs, and background vocals with the feel of a group rather than one singer. Their performance is backed by instrumentation that's just as rich. The song starts with a drum beat and bass play that make it seem like you're hearing the band play right in front of you rather than in your headphones.
The musicality of the opening song is sustained throughout the project, reminding listeners why Musiq defines his sound as Hip-Hop Soul. On "Benefits," producer J. Troy pairs strings fit for an orchestra with drums hard enough for Royce da 5’9” to rhyme over. Then there's one of the standout tracks in "My Bad," where producer GMJR transitions the beat from being stripped down in an ethereal way to being filled with bass and 808 drums. It's a song that can match up sonically with work from the likes of Bryson Tiller and PARTYNEXTDOOR, but Musiq pulls it off without seeming like the older man trying to blend in with the youth. Think JAY-Z's performance on "I Got the Keys" rather than the picture of R. Kelly wearing a neon snapback and matching sneakers.
The song is a confession of cheating, which seems to be a rite of passage for male R&B singers (I wouldn't be surprised if it was written into some of their contracts). Musiq adds nuance to the familiar tale though by showing how his thoughts progressed from hiding his actions to realizing their consequences. He goes from singing, "Never give up information you don't have to / Anything short of a lie is alright" to "I'm sorry for all the times that I made you cry / And I just couldn't admit it back then, I had way too much pride." You can time stamp Musiq's maturation throughout the song; the man you hear at 2:30 is a lot wiser than the one at 0:08.
The songs mentioned thus far help disc one flow smoothly, even while Musiq builds upon different influences. "Sooner or Later" is a classic R&B groove while "Broken Hearts" is a rock-tinged ballad, but neither song sounds out of place. Yet as the album moves to its second half, the listen becomes a bit of a trek. There are good songs along the way such as "Humble Pie," but there are quite a few that could have been left off the album altogether.
As a result, a standout track—my personal favorite on the project—surfaces toward the end, when a lot of listeners will have wavered in their focus. The song is called "Sunrise Serenade" and it features Chris Theory, Ré Lxuise and Willie Hyn. In an interview with YouKnowIGotSoul, Musiq revealed that he, Lxuise and Hyn have formed a group called BLAQGxLD. Their chemistry shines through on the song; Lxuise's tone complements Musiq's really well and Hyn punctuates their singing with the sense of conversation given off by his rhymes. To top it off, the song has harmonies that lay over a drum pattern in a way that's reminiscent of Jodeci's "Come and Talk to Me" (Remix). A song this great shouldn't be buried beneath 22 songs, it deserves an engaged listen.
Feel the Real is a good album that falls short of being great simply because of its length. Musiq would have strengthened the album by trimming it to its strongest 12 to 15 songs. Nevertheless, it's worth a listen, even if that listen is longer than what we're used to in the streaming era. Musiq's lyrics provide substance without sounding melodramatic. His vocals are strong and they're paired with production that revamps the sound we've come to love from him.
Musiq's latest release offers us another example of why, in music, less tends to be more. Yet, Musiq should be praised for continuing to make quality music when he could easily go in a different direction.
Notable Tracks: “Feel the Real” | “My Bad” | “Sooner or Later” | “Sunrise Serenade”