The Exquisite Thug

In the ghetto, vulnerability is the boldest possible emotion.

It's not so much that r&b is in a quagmire as that hip-hop is so very much not. Which means that for 10 years now, it's made more sense for great vocalists to forgo austerity in favor of a little bump and grind. No one—save for early Mary J Blige and about four months of D'Angelo—thought the two could coexist. (Let us not speak of Kells.)

Enter Jaheim. With nary a mark on the pop landscape, Jaheim's first two albums went platinum, which isn't bad for a guy who is, effectively, a cult artist, selling formalism to an audience reared on disruption. His voice is a marvel—the lightness and fluidity of Luther Vandross, cut with a dose of Teddy Pendergrass's understated sensuality. And Ghetto Classics, his third, is his most musically ornate and stylistically conservative to date, almost bold in its timidity. Only the references are current—"125th" opens with a scene straight from "Around the Way Girl": "She was standing on one-two-fifth/Waiting on the 6 One hand on her hip/Puffing on a spliff/I'm in the flyest whip/Rims spinning and shit."

Traditionalists laud singers like the preternaturally grandfatherly Anthony Hamilton, whose voice sounds like the exhaust from a 50-year-old motorcycle, while Jaheim and his cornrows are brushed off along with the thugs he so often accompanies. In the wake of disco and then rap, soul music has floundered, wondering if it had a role if it didn't have a cause. It's become pop's most stubborn and self-contradictory genre, a class and culture war wrapped in a veneer of dignity, long outmoded.

But Jaheim—who does vulnerability stunningly well—knows there are different ways to save, and different people who need saving. Take "Daddy Thing," carried along on a gentle guitar line and cabaret piano, a trad structure that almost distracts from the very au courant hip-hop generation conundrum at the core of the lyric—falling for the mother of another man's child, and taking care of the little one while the father is, you know, away.

"I got my income tax and said, 'Fuck it'/And traded in your bucket/'Cause that coupe wasn't big enough," he sings, exquisitely, with the resignation of a man who knows he's been gamed, whose irrelevance is inevitable. "I wasn't trying to replace him/Now that he's back around/Guess you can leave me now."

 
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