Playing for Keeps (released October 26, 2018)
What if I told you your favorite classic R&B star made a trap album?
I know, I know, you’d probably say “welcome to 2018, playa.”
It feels like every other review I’ve written this year talks about how some veteran artist is trying to autotune his or her way into the hearts of your 14-year-old cousin. And it almost ALWAYS ends up a disaster.
So you can probably imagine the hair-raising fear I experienced when I turned on Playing for Keeps, lucky No. 13 in the legendary Keith Sweat’s catalog. The first track “Eenie Meenie Miney Mo” is the trappiest trap song you’ve ever heard – the insane repetition, the random guy yelling stuff in the background, the stilted delivery: “Ican-pickem-justlike-Eenie-Meanie-Miney-Mo”
It’s not the way I wanted this album to start – lord knows I was clutching my chest like Fred Sanford looking for his Life Alert – but by track 3 or 4 I realized I should have had more faith. King Keef knows what he’s doing.
Keith Sweat is arguably the most enduring male R&B act of our lifetime. His career spans three decades, six No. 1 albums, a bunch of chart-topping singles, nearly 25 million records sold and legit classic songs stamped with his name. And you can’t carve out that kind of career without evolution.
We’ve seen it before. Keith’s 2000 album Didn’t See Me Coming, for example, leaned heavily into hip hop. It was a step outside his comfort zone but it worked. Playing for Keeps continues that trend, this time syphoning off of mainstream music’s incessant fascination with the trap sound.
Yep, but here’s the difference: While Usher totally lost himself trying to keep up with the kiddies, Keith (for the most part) doesn’t sacrifice his sound to bow to the alter of the Trap Gods.
This is a Keith Sweat album with trap-inspired production, not Keith cosplaying as Jeremih.
Current single “Boomerang” is a good example. It’s the typical Keith formula: pair him with a female vocalist (in this case, rising singer Candace Price) sprinkle in a couple of trap drums but maintain the core elements of a good Keith song – that man knows how to beg for love.
“Get Up In It” and “Pull Up” follow that same blueprint. It’s certainly a different sound for Keith but once he settles into his groove, these tracks work. “No Love Loss” was a pretty jarring at first listen but once Keith gets on a roll, he adjusts well. And it’s cool to hear him over a new style of instrumentation.
Of course, things don’t ALWAYS work out that smoothly. “Who’s Ya Daddy,” featuring Tank and Teddy Riley and goofy lyrics like “knock you down like Deontay Wilder/He-Man, I got the power” come off more like a Chappelle’s Show skit than a legit record crafted by R&B titans.
It’s true, Playing For Keeps’ trendy tracks don’t always hit the mark (hi, “Eenie Meenie Miney Mo”), but when Keith gives us his vintage sound, this album SOARS.
The ultra-smooth “Bae Bae” has “next single” written all over it. Keith is in his element fawning all over his woman backed by elegant production. “How Many Ways” with K-Ci, which was super-glued to the charts for most of 2018, is the type of record these guys can do with their eyes closed. It’s an effortless collabo that easily connects with their core fan bases.
And speaking of that base, no song on this album screams KEEEEEF like the bedroom burner “Red Negligee.” Seriously, this one could have dropped in his mid-90s heyday and dominated the Video Soul countdown for 8 months. It’s one of Keith’s best songs in recent memory.
From the breezy “Cloud 9” to even the riddims of “Fuego,” which work a lot better than you’d probably expect, Playing for Keeps’ constant tempo changes gives the album some much-needed diversity.
That diversity comes at a cost. Playing For Keeps is definitely a mixed bag. When Keith sticks to his script, he knocks it out of the park effortlessly. The trendier efforts, while mostly OK, just don’t come off as naturally.
But hey, those are the growing pains of evolution.
Best tracks: “Red Negligee,” “Bae Bae,” “How Many Ways”
3.5 stars out of 5