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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."

The man in the mirror: Musiq does a double take.
The man in the mirror: Musiq does a double take.

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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."

As one of nine children raised in a family in urban Philadelphia, Musiq didn't hear much art rock; his father, a saxophone player who gigged around town, loved '70s rhythm and blues and played it constantly. But because Musiq came of age during the decade that followed, he was immersed in the culture of rap. "That's the basis of my style: hip-hop and soul music," he says. "I'm part of the hip-hop generation, but I was raised on the music of my parents' generation, which is raw, straight-up, tell-it-like-it-is soul music. And those two major sounds have a lot to do with what my music is all about."

He was exposed to diverse faiths, as well. "My parents were raised Christian, but during a time when a lot of people were searching for knowledge, my mom converted to Islam, because she thought it was deep and really prophetic. So I was raised in that environment -- with the Bible on the one hand and the Koran on the other."

Rather than pick one dogma over the other, Musiq chose a third option. "I would tell people that I believe in God, but music is my religion, because that was the only thing I was really motivated to be a part of -- and I'd get upset about people saying something bad about music in the same way people would get angry over people saying bad things about their church. When they would bad-talk hip-hop, I'd get so mad, because they didn't understand what it was all about. I know there weren't a lot of good hip-hop representatives and it was slightly rebellious. But what it was really about was a bunch of frustrated kids trying to get a thought out, and them trying to understand what life is all about. It wasn't to step on anybody's toes or shit on anybody -- that wasn't the point. They were just trying to find themselves and express themselves, and that's the only way they could do it at the time."

For Musiq, the need to make personal statements in art and life became all-encompassing. "I'd been singing all my life, but when I was about nine, I realized I was good enough to get attention. Then, when puberty started to hit, I got really self-conscious about it. But when I turned sixteen, I realized that I was a creative person in more than just music. Like, I always could draw, and I was emotionally affected by clothes -- I would dress the way I would feel. And I could never do something to just do it. I had to put my 'ness to it, you know. I had to put some of me into it."

The more hours he spent singing and beatboxing with his pals, the harder it became to concentrate on education. In the end, he became a ninth-grade dropout -- a decision he grapples with to this day. "I'm an artist, and I was an artist before I even realized that's what I am," he says. "I have very sensitive moods, and I go through my shit. So when it came time to deal with school and discipline and authority, I had a real problem with that. The contradiction is, I'm a very methodical individual. I need structure, I need order; I can't stand chaos. But I'm also a fast learner, and if I learn something today, I don't see why you need to go back the next day and recap it. I can go to the library and do that myself. So I didn't see the bigger picture like I do now.

"I try not to regret anything I do in life, because it is what it is: If I really wanted to change something, I should have done it then. But I really wish I would have taken advantage of my resources. My knowledge of things might have been different."

Leaving school led to tensions at home, and Musiq moved out when he was seventeen. A tough stretch followed, but things began looking up in the late '90s, when he met Carvin Haggins, who would become his songwriting partner. A demo the two made in conjunction with producer Ivan "Orthodox" Barius caught the ear of Def Jam/Def Soul head man Kevin Liles, who inked Musiq in early 2000. That June, Liles used his muscle to get "Just Friends (Sunny)" onto the soundtrack of the Eddie Murphy sequel Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, and it promptly became a hit, paving the way for Aijuswannaseing's release a few months later. By the spring of 2001, the album had reached platinum sales status, and Juslissen seems to be on the same track: It entered the Billboard album chart at number one and is already certified gold -- over 500,000 copies sold. As a bonus, Musiq's been romantically linked with diva/Denver native India.Arie. Nice work if you can get it.

Still, challenges remain, not the least of which is convincing the critical establishment that he's got his own musical voice -- not just great taste. Musiq thinks this is a worthy goal, too, but that doesn't mean he sees any reason to change his songwriting approach. For instance, he and Haggins rely heavily on what he refers to as "formulas," a term he doesn't view as negative.

"It's like recipes," he says. "There's only so many recipes you can use to make a cake, you know. Sooner or later, you're going to use flour, milk, sugar and eggs. Now, some people may not use eggs; some people might use something else. But that's the basis of a cake -- a formula. So it's what you do with the formula that matters. And there are a lot of different formulas in music, a lot of different genres -- and even inside a genre, there are different formulas. You've got blues, you've got jazz, you've got gospel, you've got reggae, you've got hip-hop, you've got soul, you've got funk, you've got classical, you've got rock. And inside those genres, you've got times and generations and moods and vibes. So just by listening to all of those different things -- taking them and digesting them and communicating them in your own way -- you develop your own style.

"It's difficult to accept the fact that people color me as an R&B artist, because there's more to me than just R&B music," he goes on. "To me, the highest level anyone can go to is soul music -- and to me, soul music is someone expressing themselves, their innermost thoughts, whatever it is that defines them, through music. And it doesn't matter what kind of music it is. It doesn't matter if it's drum and bass, alternative or computer-generated whatever. What it boils down to is people expressing themselves through words and sounds. And that's what I try to do."

Groupies are conspicuously missing from this equation -- and so, strangely enough, is romance. But the way Musiq explains these absences demonstrates why he's got so many groupies in the first place.

"To me, it's all about love and relationships," he insists. "But contrary to what people believe, I don't really consider myself a romantic person. I believe that what you do to people, it comes back to you sooner or later. That's what karma is all about. So I just try to respect people, that's all."

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