By Daniel Garrett
Brian McKnight, Evolution of a Man
Produced by Brian McKnight
Recorded by Brian McKnight Jr.
Executive Producer: Silas White
Hard Work International/El Music, 2009
“All I’ve ever tried to do is to write my story in a language and at a temperature that everyone can relate to and understand.”
Love is both sky and ground for the singer-songwriter Brian McKnight, and his voice and the consistent beat from song to song give his album Evolution of a Man its order. I know that when I first heard the album Evolution of a Man, I was not sure that it was enough—its title is very promising; and, many months later, listening to the song collection again I find it quite pleasant. Brian McKnight is part of the contemporary, popular soul music tradition, and from a position of bourgeois comfort he sings of the stresses and sweetness of love; and his voice goes places—deep, erotic, sensitive—that his lyrics suggest. McKnight, a favorite of younger singers, has been a host of music-related television and radio programs; and, a determined worker, he wrote all the songs on the album. Literature, music, and film fill the leisure moments of many people, but artists may be the only people who work because they want to, not because they have to: in search of the method and means to fulfill their desire for beauty, order, purpose, and understanding; and as their mission depends on observation, emotion, thought, and imagination, with whatever skills and technique they have, it is arguable that artists do not stop working no matter what else they are doing.
The album Evolution of a Man begins with a prelude of electronic rhythms announcing “The Brian McKnight Show,” which uses the word show in more than one way—to announce both self-presentation and entertainment. Then, McKnight gets to his subject: the seductive energy of nightlife, of which music is a part, is weighed by mature reflection in “Just a Little Bit,” a song in which a social encounter quickly leads to sex and the sudden questioning of the experience. Is sex what he and his partner want, or love? The song’s lines are beautifully phrased and quickly sung in McKnight’s tenor tones, against a clapping beat, with a melodious chorus, in the light, well-paced soul sound.
A tribal beat begins the sultry “I Bet Cha Neva,” one of several songs with titles spelled with idiosyncrasy. McKnight, first describing then offering advice for erotic satisfaction, sings that there is a right way, and a wrong way, a fast way and a slow way, in letting reality rise to romantic fantasy. In the song “What I’ve Been Waiting 4,” love is humbling to a busy man. Once frightened of love, he is both needy and fulfilled—and smiling. There is something greatly familiar about the song; and I am not sure if that is because I have heard it at home and on radio, or because it hews close to well-executed formula.
Brian McKnight does not sing of ghetto life in run-down tenements, violent hustles and narcotic sales, of whores and pimps, or rats and roaches; nor does he sing of temporary jobs and unemployment checks, of bad bosses and landlords, of sudden evictions and midnights spent deciding whether to beg, borrow, steal—or die. He sings of love as game, luxury, and spiritual fulfillment. His high-voiced testament, tender and urgent, in “When U Are Lovin’ Me” is something anticipated by the work of Smokey Robinson and Luther Vandross. However, the ballad “Never Say Goodbye,” which asks for mutual commitment, makes reference to a future wedding and acknowledges being moved to tears: its sentimentality is both calculating and mastered, and not a sound I like; its stance is too ideal, its presentation too lush. I understand it is the kind of thing women will respond to—with excitement.
Following the sung interlude “Stay Tuned,” is the song “Next 2 U,” in which the singer declares the woman before him unique, and their relationship a new intimacy. Although it has a contemporary atmosphere, with a tiny repetitious beat set against McKnight’s low, slow (baritone) voice, it reminds me of “Nobody Makes Me Crazy Like You Do” from Diana Ross’s mid-1980s Swept Away album and, with the rap interpolation in McKnight’s song, recalled also is Prince’s early 1990s work (Diamonds and Pearls). McKnight’s voice is his gift, his most persuasive tool. In a melodic song of doubt about separated lovers who miss each other, “I Miss U,” the warm tone of his voice and the precision of his phrasing are seductive. Genuine melody and logical articulation have become so rare in rhythm-and-blues that the song is an easy winner. McKnight even makes contemplation, regret, and resolve the main currents in “Always Be My Baby,” in which fondness is declared despite a relationship’s end. McKnight’s fearless expression of emotion makes him rare, of remarkable value, though it would be interesting to have a wider range of emotions.
“You’re the air that I breathe, the song that I sing,” McKnight declares in “Baby It’s U,” another song some women are likely to cherish (while some men are likely to cringe). The instrumentation—drums, piano, and guitar, I think—seems genuine and gives the song’s sentiment a musical spine. The lyrics do mention some time spent away from home by the narrator, something that does make at least one listener wonder and produces a welcomed wrinkle. Humming begins the tune “While,” a song about a couple’s reacquaintance, and it has lively percussion, but an emphatic worry enters McKnight’s voice (not a tone I like, but real-world emotion can be that way), and then McKnight seems to take a reflective step back. There is a pretty piano introduction to “Another You,” in which the narrator asserts that if he traveled, seeking another lover, he would find only someone half as attractive and significant as the woman he has; and McKnight’s passionate expression brings to mind singer Donny Hathaway. It is a climax in the album’s pursuit of romance, but not the last song; and then the album ends with a declaration of belief in spiritual purpose and the existence of a conscious divine presence, “Not Alone,” and, faithful rather than crazy, it is neither particularly reasoned nor repellent. Many contemporary compositions feel like fragments, in terms of both lyrics and music, but that is not true of Brian McKnight’s Evolution of a Man: these are the love songs of a fit, successful, and talented middle-age man.
Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. “I always thought the most important thing was to be a human being—and to follow one’s own ideas and impulses, fulfilling one’s dreams and purpose. Other people could help or hinder but their concerns could not be a substitute,” says Garrett who originated two internet logs: one focused on culture and social issues, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader.” He has been writing a novel, A Stranger on Earth.