Feel the Real (released September 15, 2017)
Give the homie Musiq Soulchild his props.
While fans, critics and even fellow artists bemoan the death of R&B, he’s working double time to keep the once-might genre vibrant.
Emphasis on “double time.”
Musiq’s eight solo release, Feel the Real, is a rarity – a double album that proves that he might just be the hardest-working man in R&B today. It comes off the heels of last year’s strong but overlooked Life on Earth LP and, of course, his infamous EPs released under the alter egos Purple Wondaluv and The Husel.
We do our best to try to forget those EPs.
As both a music critic and fan, I’ll always take quality over quantity. That’s why I tend to side eye most double albums – they’re typically good albums stretched well beyond their limits.
Put it this way – it’s September, so that means the grocery stores are finally restocking my favorite cereal, Count Chocula. And even though I have to wait AN ENTIRE YEAR to grab a box, I can’t sit and eat it all in one sitting once I finally get my hands on it. Too much of a good thing can be gross.
But much to Musiq’s credit, even though Feel the Real is one MASSIVE meal (clocking in at nearly 100 minutes), he diversifies the portions so he’s not shoving the same tastes down your throat. It’s a lot to take in, but most of it is very satisfying.
The soulful title track opens the album and sets the tone. Despite sporadic (and frankly, unnecessary) vocal effects scattered throughout, it’s vintage Musiq, delivering the entrancing melodies that made him a star. “Benefits,” well, benefits, from a midtempo groove and a playful message – if he can’t build a household with a woman, he’s content with just playing house. The “friends with benefits” theme isn’t new – just ask SZA how she spends her weekends – but Musiq’s delivery makes it oddly endearing. Can’t front on him for being honest.
The first disc really hits its stride midway with “Start Over”: “I know your grind is your life, always been about your business/but I can’t deny in my mind, always thought you and I were unfinished.” Musiq is always at his best when he bares his soul. “Hard Liquor” is a surprisingly biting response to the “old heads” in the room who constantly dismiss the younger generation: “You I know we might not be the best role models,” Musiq muses, ” but life’s a hard pill to swallow.” He sums up life pretty well by the end: “Life’s a b**** but I loved her since the day I met her.”
While “I’m Good” and “Shudawudacuda” fall into Musiq’s usual trappings of being too mellow and monotonous, that’s a bit of a nitpick – songs like “Sooner or Later,” with its live-band feel, really put a new dimension on Musiq’s material. Plus, y’all know I’m a sucker for live horns. “Broken Hearts” and “Love Me Back” wind up as very strong album cuts too.
In fact, if we’re just weighing this first disc, it’s among some of Musiq’s best work. Ever.
But then, we get to the second disc.
And while nothing on the second half is actively poor, Musiq’s momentum begins to wane and the curse of the double album sets in. Fan-favorite single “Humble Pie” kicks off the second half with lots of energy and attitude but fails to reach the heights of the first half’s offerings. Things thankfully pick up later with the beautiful soundscapes provided by “Fact of Love” and especially “Test Drive,” with electric guitars that prove to be a great contrast to the album’s melodic keys. The 80s vibes of “Sunrise Serenade” are also a treat.
Unfortunately, though, about half of disc two feels tacked on, filled with tracks that would have been left on the floor if this was a standard release. The weather metaphors are laid on a little too thick on “Like the Weather” and even the awesomeness of Neil deGrasse Tyson can’t elevate “The Moon” higher than just a middle-of-the-road Musiq cut.
And just when you thought The Husel retired, he returns to mumble his way through “One More Time,” rapping like he’s got a mouth full of my Count Chocula. Guest rapper Willie Hyn does a great job of salvaging things though. He becomes the quiet MVP of Feel the Real, in fact: his verses on “Serendipity” and “My Bad” are quite strong.
If Musiq had just given us disc one with a couple of disc two’s best offerings, he’s have one of the stronger albums of his career – and quite possibly the best R&B release of 2017. And while a good portion of disc two does underperform, make no mistake, Feel the Real winds up exceeding expectations.
Sure, there’s a lot on your plate, but Musiq certainly won’t let you leave feeling hungry.
Best tracks: “Sooner or Later,” “Start Over,” “Benefits,” “Hard Liquor”
4 stars out of 5