As a solo artist, Calvin "Soul Prince" Richardson has been seducing audiences with his silken Southern soul vocals for 11 years. Over those years, Richardson has cemented his image as a younger, sexier Aaron Neville for adoring Magnolia peaches in the Bible Belt. While singing a register or two lower than Neville, Richardson matches the Naw'lins legend with similarly marketed biceps, a technically flawless tenor, and tradition-bound material that stays true to his bluesy soul roots-sometimes tiresomely so. Unlike Neville, Richardson 's dedication to the past has cost him cross-over appeal and greater prominence in the Blue states, despite an undeniable talent and look that has made him a proven draw throughout the Red.
Recently, Richardson 's appeal has begun looking like it might finally outgrow his regional base, a boon for a hard-grinder whose highs included a million-dollar national deal with the now-defunct Hollywood Records to the low of being replaced by Joe on his own Grammy-winning duet, "More Than A Woman" with Angie Stone. Indeed, this year, Richardson was Grammy-nominated as a co-writer (with Babyface) on "Uncle" Charlie Wilson's "There Goes My Baby," Grammy-nominated again for Facts of Life: The Soul of Bobby Womack, and awarded ASCAP Songwriter of the Year. Richardson 's fifth album, America's Most Wanted, comes on the heels of that win, with a single, "You Are Amazing," doing steady business at radio in markets far above the Mason-Dixon Line . So, does America's Most Wanted continue Richardson 's winning streak toward being more than merely the South's Most Wanted?
Almost. Richardson and co-producer Robert Perry (The Revelations featuring Tre Williams) have definitely crafted some solid Southern soul with a handful of urban AC songs that do indeed have more universal appeal. The lead single is a strong start, the stepper's title track, an ideal follow-up; and at least two other readily-identifiable catchy summer jams for the mature crowd, including the West Indian flavored "Sexin When We Dancin'." Richardson is definitely working to draw his fans to the dance floor on this project, enough to expect plenty of hand dancing in the aisles of his summer tour. Each of the easy mid-tempo grooves firmly plant Richardson as a crooner to be reckoned with and make the album worth the cost of admission to his secret grown folks club, one where fun is still an option.
There are also a couple of standout ballads that are engorged with enough pathos and pain to keep Richardson's blues base nodding with approval as they tell the youngin's how "they don't know nothin' ‘bout that there." The Revelations sound is most prominent on the slow drags, particularly on the steady "Never Do You Wrong," which feels like a bonus track from the band's Deep Soul debut. An unbridled soul belter, "Come Over," simmers as the best of the hip-huggers. With dramatic strings and all-too-familiar guitar chords, The Revelations band sets the stage for Richardson to pour his heart to the woman he loves in a way that deftly defies begging in its earnest, masculine request. A lovely "Adore You" tries to repeat this same high-water mark in its soul-drenched salutation, but lacks the no-holds barred feel of "Come Over."
"Adore" fares considerably better than some of the other close-but-no-cigar cuts that fail to climb out of the routine soul-by-numbers rut that characterizes far too many Richardson B-sides. "Monday Morning" has a title that is more investigation-worthy than its faux-retro soul execution. The repetitive "You Possess My Body" fatigues on so many levels I need smelling-salts just thinking about it. And, the wasteful "Thug Livin" sounds as overreaching as the title of his oh-so-unsexy duet with the hard-as-nails Nadia on "ReachOut." These songs each fail by trying too hard to be urban, gritty, and soulful in ways that are bewildering for a talent who so often is all of these things when he's simply breathing. Each of the above-mentioned cuts lack what makes Calvin Richardson who he is when at his most natural: authenticity. They also seem to disturbingly pander to a base that is more dynamic and three-dimensional than these songs suggests; a kind of approximation of what the Dirrrty of the South want to hear.
Fortunately, there is enough right with Richardson's project to yield another potential Grammy nomination and a few songs worthy of at least a shot at another #1 Billboard slot-this time as the singer, and not just the writer. Hopefully, one of those radio-ready cuts will be enough to help the "Soul Prince" climb over that long resistant hurdle to international fame as the undisputed heir to Neville's Southern Soul crown. Richardson may not always have the material worthy of a coronation, but God knows his highness already has the voice, presence, and loyal following of a true royal. Recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson