Before "Woman" — a dedication to hard-working females everywhere from his new Love Behind the Melody — earned Raheem DeVaughn a nomination for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance at the 2008 Grammy Awards, he was soul music's best-kept secret.
He toured through Atlanta several times a year, and usually drew standing-room-only audiences. DJs at Atlanta's neo-soul hangouts such as Harlem Bar and Apache Café spun "You," a luscious highlight from his major-label debut The Love Experience.
DeVaughn had independently released music before his major-label debut, including CrossRhodes: Limited Budget, Unlimited Quality with W. Ellington Felton and The Street Experience mixtapes with his D.C.-based crew Urban Ave 31.
The key to all those sold-out shows, however, was The Love Experience. Part of its charm as a neoclassic release was its retro feel. Many of its songs percolated around samples from '70s and '80s soul: "Until" is woven around a sample from Isley Brothers' "Footsteps in the Dark." DeVaughn sounds old and seasoned, with a pained and sympathetic voice reminiscent of the late Marvin Gaye. It's a comparison he welcomes. "I could never fill his shoes, though. I can only keep the torch burning," he says.
In spite of its title, The Love Experience is not only about romance, but the emotional and physical binds that draw people together. DeVaughn sings of corruption in the church on "Catch 22," and striving toward a higher purpose on "Green Leaves." On the title track, he reminisces about his life and all the trouble he's gotten into as a sample from Switch's "My Friend in the Sky" unfolds. He concludes, "We are all experiments of the love experience."
"Half of the CD is conscious music," DeVaughn says. He points to "Who," for example. "That whole song is saying: Who cares? Who's going to care for the babies? Who's going to care for the fact that we've got soldiers dying in a war? Who's going to care for the fact that we've got gentrification in most cities? Who's going to care about the people in New Orleans?"
DeVaughn's new Love Behind the Melody is a different album. Its producers – Kenny Dope from house music legends Masters at Work as well as Scott Storch, Bryan-Michael Cox and others – use session musicians, not dusty old samples. One exception is "Friday (Shut the Club Down)," which features a throwback from the Temptations' "My Girl." But overall, the album is slick and modern, encompassing an hour of smooth contemporary soul.
While The Love Experience had a sociopolitical context, Love Behind the Melody is an unabashed collection of baby-making sex music. It literally heaves and humps: On "Marathon," guest vocalist Marsha Ambrosius from Floetry coos and squeals as if DeVaughn's voice was massaging her body. As DeVaughn puts it, his fans can play the album and "definitely put it to work." Perhaps because of its focus on sex, Love Behind the Melody sounds more predictable and ordinary than its predecessor, in spite of highlights such as "Marathon."
"I consider myself a balladeer, so I definitely did a lot of ballads for this album. I wanted to make a love album. It's like my version of [R. Kelly's] 12 Play and the Isley Brothers' Greatest Hits," he says. "It's a soundtrack to set the mood."
Love Behind the Melody may be less complicated and well-rounded than The Love Experience. In spite of landing in the Billboard top 10 album chart upon its January release, however, it probably won't turn DeVaughn into the next Keyshia Cole – an R&B star who slowly finds a mainstream pop audience. For all of its strengths, it doesn't have any catchy singles with unforgettable hooks, "Woman" included. Much like Anthony Hamilton, another accomplished soul artist with a grown-up audience, DeVaughn is for adults, not the teenage demographic that controls urban radio.
Meanwhile, DeVaughn already has a name for his next album: The Love and War Masterpeace Project. "The whole album is a socially conscious album," he says. "I've still got a lot of work to do."
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