Mon, Aug 10, 2009 - Page 13 News List

The quiet storm

Soul music is finding a new maturity in artists like K’Jon and Maxwell — and its old-fashioned wisdom is beginning to pop up in some unlikely places

By Jon Caramanica  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

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No signifier of sincerity is left unexplored in the fantasy of domesticity that is K’Jon’s This Time: soft, pensive piano; light, Spanish-inflected guitar; muted horns; pliant strings; and, at the song’s end, a children’s choir.

“Last night tried to get some snooze/Dreamed we was breaking up, we were through,” he sings. “When I looked around you was gone/Found that a house is really not a home/When you’re alone.”

This Time is the second single from K’Jon’s major-label debut, I Get Around (Universal Republic), one of this year’s most promising R ’n’ B albums and also one of its least expected. For the first time in recent memory the most vital new soul music addresses particularly adult concerns, with a particularly adult sound.

Nowhere is this style more clear than on On the Ocean, K’Jon’s debut single, which has been on Billboard’s Hot Adult R ’n’ B Airplay chart for nearly six months. A dramatic exhale of a song, it’s a palpable craving for something that, especially in a recession, is more erotic than love: financial stability.

“Every now and then, it feels like/My ship has gone and sailed away,” K’Jon sings with just the faintest scrape of tension in his voice. “Now the tide is coming in, I see the waves flowing/Out there on the ocean, I know my ship is coming in.” Behind him are misty new-age-esque walls of sound, plinking piano and the sounds of gurgling water. All the while K’Jon remains placid, never trying to overwhelm or be overwhelmed.

While the second half of I Get Around forgoes the ethereal in favor of tougher songs, that material is far less convincing. K’Jon is a grown-up, and he can’t hide from that.

And he’s not alone. Last month the soul perfectionist Maxwell returned from an eight-year break with his fourth album, BLACKsummer’snight (Columbia); it sold more than 300,000 copies in its debut week to land atop the Billboard Hot 200 album chart, and it remains in the Top 3. Its commercial success is a testament to the timeless quality of Maxwell’s sound, but it’s also proof of a persistent, dormant audience for this style of music. (Similarly, when rumors of a new album from the lite-soul recluse Sade began circulating this year, anticipation ran unusually high.)

Both K’Jon and Maxwell represent a strain of R ’n’ B that has remained blissfully ignorant of the rise and domination of hip-hop. In radio formatting terms, it’s urban adult contemporary, a name that does this often vibrant and underappreciated subgenre no favors.

NEO-SOUL

For much of the last decade the format has been driven by neo-soul, though that movement has often felt like a conceptual offshoot of bohemian-minded rap. Adult soul, as practiced by Maxwell, K’Jon and others, borrows from classic soul in song structure and is preoccupied with more mature themes relevant to an older audience.

Twenty years ago some of these records might have been called “quiet storm,” and nowadays there’s overlap between smooth jazz, gospel and adult-oriented R ’n’ B. Kem, who like K’Jon is from Detroit, has released a pair of albums, Kemistry and Album II (Motown), that have helped shape the genre’s sound.

Additionally, particularly for artists from the Midwest, adult soul is the soundtrack to dance night. K’Jon cut his teeth singing on the Detroit ballroom circuit: his most recent independent album, which also featured On the Ocean, was called The Ballroom Xplosion (Up & Up).

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