When Chris Brown chirp, Shawty chirp back—no Nextel required. See, there’s an avian brrrr to the boy’s voice, meaning that when he glides toward that upper register, there’s just the faintest rumble of seismic activity, rifts that could tear the whole thing apart if tested.
And so Brown keeps his Usher-face straight for the run of his debut. Like Atlanta’s best-known stepper-outer, he’s loyal not to the song’s words or their meaning, but to the sheen they radiate when strung together just so.
Usher’s latest, aided and abetted by Lil Jon, honed the idea to a sharp edge. Which means Brown, all of 16, is singing by numbers, and producer Scott Storch is unraveling the crunk&B DNA, and then cloning. The results, “Run It!” and “Gimme That,” are solid, but both need a rapper—Juelz Santana and Lil Wayne (on the radio version), respectively—to make Brown seem like anything more than a boy playing at manhood.
Which is, natch, the only route left; it’s not like the kid can just cover “Mr. Telephone Man” and show off his cheekbones. “Ma, take a break, let me explain to you/ What your body got a young boy ready to do/If you take a chance and let me put them thangs on you/I can show you why I’m making straight A’s in school”: It’s as sexy as statutory rape.
A good eight years older than Brown, Ray J has maybe earned a touch of machismo. He certainly argues for it on his third album, whether it’s reminding—make that, informing—you he used to roll with bangers or flaunting his friendship with R. Kelly. Anything, really, to make you forget he’s Brandy’s little brother, already out to pasture hosting on BET.
But the years riding the bench haven’t all been for naught. “One Wish” is the sort of song his mentor Kells would do to soften up an otherwise vulgar album. Which is to say: It’s great. Transcendent. Good enough, even, to forgive the part where his voice cracks. Produced by Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins—who in “What I Need” revisits the watery synths he gave big sis for “The Boy Is Mine”—this spare piano and percussion track operates slyly. It never tests Ray J vocally, but creates a seamless, gentle bed on which his pleading sounds dignified and necessary.
As lost-love paroxysm, “One Wish” has been recently outdone by only Ne-Yo’s “So Sick,” the most mathematically precise expression of despair to hit radio in years. “Gotta change my answering machine/Now that I’m alone/’Cause right now it says that we/Can’t come to the phone/And I know it makes no sense/’Cause you walked out the door/But it’s the only way I hear your voice/Anymore.”
As a songwriter, Ne-Yo is as committed to structure as Brian McKnight. (Or Big L.) And “So Sick,” like much of his debut, is a marvel of elegance. It’s not only that the words are delivered conversationally, without affect, but also because each bar carries equal narrative weight. There is no filler. It is a surgical assault.
Maybe Ne-Yo’s compensating—his voice is strong if not memorable (guest rapper Peedi Crakk outright steals “Stay” with one of his worst verses). But he has a gift nonetheless. “Sexy Love” slickly recalls “Human Nature,” and “Time” smolders somewhere in between Jacko and Wonder. (These songs and “So Sick,” the album’s three best, are all produced by Norway’s decreasingly clandestine hitmakers Stargate.)
Still, there’s something task oriented about Ne-Yo’s songs, as if they were the result of a particularly diligently done junior high homework assignment. There’s little movement, or uncertainty, in his tone. (“Time,” in particular, sounds like it might be better sung by Neil Diamond. Or Brian Stokes Mitchell.) It was the same thing that undid last year’s otherwise sublime “Let Me Love You,” by Mario, which Ne-Yo wrote. So obsessed with form and crispness, it all but elides the rawness its lyrics demand. The system is closed, sewn up clean, and all you want to hear are scars.