Musiq Maker

On his latest album, the Soulchild grows up.

In an interview with Rolling Stone published in June, Taalib Johnson -- known to the world as Musiq Soulchild until earlier this year, when he dropped the second half of his nom de plume -- was asked if he had groupies even before he made music. "Actually, no," he replied. "I haven't had groupies. I had admirers, but not groupies."

Times have changed. During a set in which he opened for Erykah Badu at the Fillmore Auditorium last year, Musiq, who's in his mid-twenties, inspired a response from female concert-goers that went well beyond mere admiration -- and since then, such reactions have become so commonplace that there's no use pretending otherwise. Even so, Musiq's acknowledgment that many of his fans would love to do more than just buy his CDs is refreshingly machismo-free.

"At first, to be honest with you, I didn't really know what a groupie was," he concedes, laughing. "But now I know what a groupie is. And I've got a lot of groupies."

He deserves each and every one of them, too, in part because his persona stands in opposition to the R&B/hip-hop world's currently accepted masculine standards. Whereas many of his peers present themselves in videos as leering party kings who mesmerize legions of sweaty, scantily clad booty-shakers with figures straight out of a comic book, Musiq comes across as a passionate monogamist: devoted, perceptive, deferential. He strives to incorporate these qualities into his personal life.

"When I'm out with a girl, I try to treat her the way I like to be treated," he says. "There's nothing complicated about that. It's a basic, simple, human thing. If you don't want anybody to be cussing you out, don't be cussing somebody else out. If you don't want people to be disrespecting you, then don't disrespect people. Simple."

On the surface, Musiq's songs seem just as uncomplicated. His 2000 debut, Aijuswannaseing (I Just Want to Sing), and his sophomore outing, this summer's Juslissen (Just Listen), are filled with couplets suitable for swooning and infectious neo-soul grooves that hark back to the genre's glory days. But describing his offerings as little more than aural aphrodisiacs with roots in a previous era would be selling them short.

"There's a lot of things going on, which is why I entitled the album Juslissen," he says. "To the average ear, the music may sound one way. But if you focus on certain songs, you'll see there's more going on than what you might have expected. We took time enough to make sure that each song was crafted to where I was happy with it -- where it didn't seem redundant or typical. Because for me, artistically, I need more to maintain my attention. So I did things in a way where it would hold my attention and the attention of people who are likeminded, but I didn't go off on the sort of artistic tangent where I might lose some people who just want to enjoy the music.

"If you want to go deeper, it's there, but it's only there if you want it," he adds. "I'm not going to force-feed you -- but it's there."

He's right: Aijuswannaseing's first full-length track, "Girl Next Door," tells a familiar tale of love among onetime neighbors in a familiar way, but subsequent efforts frequently shelter surprises. On "Just Friends (Sunny)," Musiq takes the listener inside an ultra-cautious attempt to turn a friendship into something more, while "You and Me" finds him declaring, "I wouldn't care if you were a prostitute/And that you hit every man that you ever knew/You see, it wouldn't make a difference if that/Was way before me and you." Later, "Seventeen" deals with a man who discovers that his amour is underage. But instead of leaving the narrative unresolved, Musiq considers the dangers before deciding to step back. "I ain't trying to see myself locked up for knocking off some young jones," he sings in a voice as strong as it is mellifluous. "How could I explain the situation to my family and all of my boys?"

This situational complexity accelerates on Juslissen. "Halfcrazy" is a quasi-sequel to "Just Friends," in which platonic pals who've gotten physical wonder if they've made a mistake ("Now things are strange/Nothing's the same, and really I just/Want my friend back"). "Realove" also steers clear of the bedroom, even though it concerns a woman who tells Musiq she's "never had a man who was kind to her"; by not taking advantage of this statement to get a little somethin', he becomes an exception to the rule. On "Bestfriend," meanwhile, duet partner Carol Riddick eventually convinces Musiq to take Otis Redding's advice. "Next time," he tells her, "I'll try a little tenderness."

Musically, the upgrade is even bigger. The first time around, Musiq leaned a bit too heavily on his heroes -- particularly Stevie Wonder, whose influence was emphasized to excess by writers short of ideas. ("Some journalists, they need for things to be mechanical," he says.) This time around, however, Musiq draws from a greater variety of sources. The Stevie thang turns up again on "Newness" and several other tracks, but there's also hip-hop ("Scratch Interlude"), uncut funk ("Caughtup"), gospel ("Religious"), and Prince-like showstoppers ("Motherfather"). As for "Time," Musiq says it has "a Jimi Hendrix/ Donny Hathaway/Pink Floyd vibe." Of course, Pink Floyd has a ditty of its own called "Time," available on the 1973 mega-seller Dark Side of the Moon. Musiq hasn't heard it yet, but he's making it his business to give it a spin soon, "because a couple people have mentioned it to me."

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