Loveland

Raheem Devaughn mixes R&B tradition with controlled doses of the modern. He’s not beholden to the past in the manner of the Daptone label, but his music is very clearly connected to a long lineage of male soul singers. On his new album, A Place Called Love Land, there are flashes of hip-hop influence, but no commitment to full-on merger. Devaughn doesn’t collaborate with famous guest rappers either. His latest release rides on the premise that a man singing love songs in falsetto has a timeless appeal, and that the formula doesn’t need to change much—only receive a few tweaks here and there.

At times, he’s right. This is Devaughn’s fourth album, and he’s become more comfortable over time, which makes this new album shorter and more concise. The last two albums were both over 65 minutes and included several big name cameos (including, unnecessarily, Dr. Cornell West). Devaughn is still unwilling to part with “interlude” tracks—from Drake to Janelle Monae, everyone feels that putting in something called an interlude gives them extra artistic credentials. But on this album, Devaughn doesn’t feel the need to announce his ambition with fanfare like he did on his previous release, the modestly-titled Love And War Masterpeace.

Less fanfare means it’s easier to focus on songs like “Pink Crush Velvet,” which distills all Devaughn’s abilities. It’s got two components—a rising and falling synthesizer buzz that updates the up and down melody that buoyed countless Stax ballads, and a big set of keyboard notes reminiscent of Prince’s “The Beautiful Ones.” Devaughn orchestrates his own call and response, moving between pleading, precise falsetto, and a lower, more earthly register. He shows impeccable vocal control and a modern sensibility—the singer the Dream also has a fondness for bringing the “Beautiful Ones” riff into the 21st century—but the old folks will understand it too (despite its risqué content: “Pink Crush Velvet” does not refer to flowers or upholstery.) Other songs, including “Wrong Forever” and “Complicated,” achieve a similar trick. They build around structures that have grounded soul for more than fifty years, but change a beat here, or a bass sound there.

Sometimes Devaughn takes his role as aphrodisiac too seriously.  When he sings, “it’d probably make you cry baby/ when I love your body like I do,” he presumably means you’ll be weeping for joy, but this feels like it could pair well with Woody Allen’s patented line about sex being the most fun you can have without laughing. There’s also just some straight unsexy. “I’m trying to plant a seed that grows,” sings Devaughn, “and tonight I plan to fertilize it.” He’s a man who knows what he wants—a baby. But here sex seems a tad close to gardening.  R. Kelly, who’s never met a lyric he couldn’t sell, would probably insert a joke to temper the seriousness, but Devaughn plays everything straight.

That’s ok though. R&B needs singers like Devaughn, a soul singer willing to evolve a bit, just like it needs Glasper’s avant explorations and Kelly Rowland’s firm grounding in hip-hop production. “It’s complicated,” sings Devaughn about his love-life on A Place Called Love Land, and he doesn’t sound too upset about it. Sometimes complication can help you see what’s really valuable.

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