Much of R&B has been devoted to negotiating the relationship between men and women, and Trey Songz has always been traditional in that regard. His new album, Chapter V is organized neatly into three sections. The first and longest section is a hedonistic celebration of the player lifestyle (note the line “I only came for the bitches and the drinks,” from the song “2 Reasons”). That’s followed by slowed-down laments of a love wasted; the album ends with two alternate-ending anthems. Spoiler alert: Trey ends up happy and/or sad, depending on which song you take more seriously.
Songz hasn’t released an album since 2010, and one might think that Chapter V would at least react to recent developments in R&B—perhaps it would include a couple of existential investigations into the idea of religion as a metaphor for unrequited love, or detail a drug-sparked orgy. Musically, he’s hardly shifted from the sounds of his last album, an upbeat, high-sheen R&B with the occasional synth pattern or guitar thrown in for exoticism. And though he does rap a bit on “Playin’ Hard” and (the great) “Pretty Girl’s Lie,” he mostly sticks to his guns (gunz?), a decaf version of R. Kelly with a slightly weaker voice and without Kelly’s gift for tawdry, compelling songwriting.
To be fair, Songz is from the post-Kells generation, which is filled with singers standing firmly in the shadow of the self-proclaimed “World’s Greatest.” He, though, refuses to wriggle out and claim space for a separate identity, and without a signature musical sound, there’s not much to distinguish him from being a lesser imitation of his idol.
But that’s not to say that he doesn’t know how to execute the blueprint. For instance, he knows his way around the extended metaphor, as exemplified on the song “Dive In,” in which the pool in question is a vagina and Songz plans to execute a full 400 IM. “Splash!” he croons amiably before denoting all the strokes that he plans to put into action. It’s a good song, smooth and catchy, and anchored by a simple, ludicrous premise. (By the way, Trey’s thing, now that he is no longer Mr. Steal Your Girl, is apparently being the “Panty Wetter.” At least, that’s the title of the next song.)
There are two other extended-metaphor songs that don’t succeed quite as well as “Dive In,” perhaps because Trey insists on using sports, specifically football, to talk about his feelings. Like I said, traditional. The first of these tracks, “Hail Mary” (the other is called “Fumble”), features Lil Wayne and Young Jeezy; Trey sings that he has his “game face” on and that “tonight we going long” and “Ima wanna score.” Jeezy raps a good approximation of an actual Jeezy verse and then links back into the football metaphor in his last few bars (“about to go long, celebrate”). Occasional ESPN commentator Lil Wayne extends his recent streak of unremarkable verses, though he does have a nice line about his “tongue getting stuck like [to] ice.”
That Trey is so easily paired with rappers like these two—gangsterish rappers in a pop-rap world where being gangsterish is less important than it’s been since the heyday of the Fresh Prince—says a lot about the worth of his persona. In the past, a ubiquitous loverman has always useful; sticking Songz on the hook of any big-name rapper collaboration could make the song that much more tempting for radio. At the same time, unless Jeezy and Wayne can evolve or show the kind of skill that they showed in their prime, it won’t be too long until their commercial star wanes. And as the go-to singer for these kinds of rappers (along with a couple of others), that puts Songz in some danger as well.
Trey also fits in with gangsterish, mid-naughts rappers because he purports to have a similar relationship with women. The clear manipulation in a song like “Don’t You Be Scared” is both fascinating and hilariously blunt: “I’ma keep it real, a lot of women in my phone, but I’ma keep it real, you the only one I want.” And then, if this half-real realness doesn’t convince the woman at hand, Songz employs some two-bit elementary school trickery. “Don’t you be scared,” he croons. Calling a woman a scaredy cat? A textbook neg.
Songz’s retrograde relationship to women doesn’t make Chapter V feel like an iffy album as much as the clichés. The romance-blinded lyrics of “Simply Amazing” are already reminiscent of Bruno Mars; pairing that with musical bombast and cheese of Mars’s “Just the Way You Are” makes it a little too much. “Bad Decisions” is a by-the-numbers song about regret and heartache. And the single “Heart Attack,” another simple allegory (love feels like heart attack), has a basic drum machine, conservative chorus synths and big, mournful wails during the bridge.
Then again, I’ve had it in my head for the last three days. “Dive In,” “Pretty Girl’s Lie” and, yeah, “Heart Attack” pull the listener in with over-the-top, occasionally laughable concepts and nice voices and keep him there with catchy verses and hooks. Songz (and his writing team) may not have the intuition and talent of R. Kelly. But, for at least half the running time of Chapter V, it’s clear that they’ve learned from the master and are pretty gifted copycats.