Eric Roberson - Mister Nice Guy (2014)

Eric Roberson
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It’s been eight albums. Usually by the eighth album a fan knows all of his or her favorite artist’s tricks, gimmicks, affectations, strengths and weaknesses—fresh surprises are the least expected. So, by this time in an artist’s career, some once devoted fans move on, bored with familiar timbre and techniques that once inspired awe and reverence. Others stick around comforted by the familiarity of their musical family friend, hugged by the anticipated experience of hearing their favorite lick, run and harmonic structure redone for the umpteenth time. So, it is with great relief that a listen to Eric “Erro” Roberson’s eighth full-length project reveals a young veteran who can still pull a rabbit or several out of his proverbial hat. On Mister Nice Guy, Roberson is both old and new again and the combination reveals an album that’s a grower, not a shower in its ability to woo.

It’s been eight albums. Usually by the eighth album a fan knows all of his or her favorite artist’s tricks, gimmicks, affectations, strengths and weaknesses—fresh surprises are the least expected. So, by this time in an artist’s career, some once devoted fans move on, bored with familiar timbre and techniques that once inspired awe and reverence. Others stick around comforted by the familiarity of their musical family friend, hugged by the anticipated experience of hearing their favorite lick, run and harmonic structure redone for the umpteenth time. So, it is with great relief that a listen to Eric “Erro” Roberson’s eighth full-length project reveals a young veteran who can still pull a rabbit or several out of his proverbial hat. On Mister Nice Guy, Roberson is both old and new again and the combination reveals an album that’s a grower, not a shower in its ability to woo. Surprisingly, from start to finish, it’s his most cohesive since Vault 1.0 and his most artistically eclectic release since his 10-year old independent debut, Esoteric.

Maybe it’s because Erro turned over the production reins to other equally competent producers that this album is whole yet different throughout. These men both understand Roberson’s musical universe and dared to challenge it in ways sage and quietly bold. Some decide to honor who Erro musically has been, while others pushed him to reflect the interior evolution of a man who is now a new husband and father, giving him space to be older without making him old (a trick few R&B males have successfully managed). Accordingly, Roberson in the hands of producer Brandon “B-Jazz” Scott on cuts like “Loves Withdrawal” is the Roberson of “Def Ears” and “Obstacles” from his Vault albums, an artist whose hip hop soul musical approach bordered on sing-talking melodically. In fact, the tone and melody of “Love’s Withdrawal” is similar enough to make these specific cuts a three movement suite. Erro’s grandfather’s wisdom set to lyric on a very open Scott produced “Shake Her Hand” is in line with the jazzy soul of Roberson’s earlier “Butterfly Girl” or “Rock Wit U,” but manages to still feel relatively new. Conversely, Scott also pushes a falsetto Roberson on “Fall,” a cut that unfolds in a series of elegant transitions from heartbeat ballad to Latin percussive house jam, all while keeping the vocally alluring atmospherics that originally invited listeners in. Beyond being one of the best songs on the project, “Fall” also provides a window into how Roberson can stay musically relevant while still being a grown man in a game that likes its balladeers to be sex sirens long after it’s embarrassing to watch. Not to be outdone, Jermaine Mobley also does his thing to keep Erro spry but seasoned on this summer’s hotness, “Summertime Anthem (feat. Chubb Rock),” which smartly interpolates George Benson’s “Give Me the Night.”

On “The Magician,” Philly producer/composer legend James Poyser also takes a different direction with a very vocally restrained Erro, opening the artist up to shades of Sting on Ten Summoner’s Tales or Aretha Franklin on her rare gem “Tiny Sparrow,” with a modern tune whose Medieval woodwinds, acoustic guitar and strings recall an earlier, more pastoral time. Time leaping, Brett “Bdubb” Baker introduces a ‘50s Rat Pack era Roberson on a chicly accented keys and xylophone track whose opening could have been straight from Tonex’s London Letters but eventually thickens with a more contemporary bassline and concludes with an underused, but effective Jean Baylor (best known as the other half of '90s duo, Zhane). Seventies horn charts meets hip hop bassline meets R. Kelly love preachifying on “Try Love,” bridging musical generational divides. To keep with the eclectic mix is a sped-up cover, a first in Eric’s considerable catalog, of Khari Lemuel’s “Come With Me (featuring The Ones).” Lemuel’s musical partner, Yaw, and Roberson’s Pops guest with Lemuel and Erro on this West Indian-by-way-of-Chicago song that reads so bright and emotionally pure with life that even the bum background notes toward the cut’s end endear more than annoy. Speaking of potential annoyances, though the choice of the usually delightful Aaron Hardin’s electro-soul “Picture Perfect (featuring a particularly sublime Phonte)” as a single caused this reviewer more head-scratching than nodding smiles, in the context of Mister Nice Guy, the mild radio hit sonically slides right into home base in the project’s flawless sequencing. Producer Zachariah “Slim Kat” McGant eases the transition between “Picture Perfect” to “Fall” with an un-credited “jealousy” interlude that lyrically charms in ways reminiscent of Roberson’s rarely performed “Be With You.”

If there is a truly classic Eric Roberson cut on Mister Nice Guy, one interchangeable from other peak moments throughout his ballad catalog, it’s on the perfectly hooky “At the Same Time,” an introspectively considered, universally understood truth about unequal love and the awful accompanying feelings one has when realizing where he or she sits in the equation. Yearning and emotionally raw, this is an Erro we’ve known since his 1994 Top 40 Warner Bros. debut, “The Moon,” and on indie classics like “Rain on My Parade;” it's easily one of the album’s primo vocals. Still, many a snob will opt for the piano ballad love letter, “All for Me,” for its classic feel and stark sincerity.     

With Music Fan First, a project boasting two Grammy-nominated cuts, Roberson indulged a long-time itch to plunge headlong into hip hop and younger, more urban sounds. The hip hop here is decidedly more “Cool Like That” alternative in the catchy vein of Jay Dilla, Tribe Called Quest, and De La Soul, so that bubbly cuts like the Rich Harrison’s opener, “Mr. Nice Guy,” Hezekiah’s “Strangers,” the cloudier “Talking Restless” and particularly “Male Ego,” exude a warmth and casual flow that relaxes rather than jars. Each edited for lighthearted fun and maximum impact, nothing here feels strained, unmelodic, or needlessly repetitious as has sometimes been the case with some past Erro raps. The hip hop grooves on Mister Nice Guy are helpful, adding different textures and infectious rhythms that prevent a sonic sameness to an album with a deceptively seamless feel, one that masks the project’s subtle dynamics and kaleidoscope of explored musical palettes as diverse as any heard from more schizophrenic major label R&B releases.

There is little obvious about Eric Roberson on his eighth album, which delights given the anxiety that bleeds into far too many artists’ creative processes at this stage of a 17-plus year career. Everything on Mister Nice Guy feels true and sure, giving listeners a ride so smooth and easy that it’s over before you know it. While there are no “stop the presses” showstoppers, there are also no clunkers in an album of 15 consistently morsel delicious tracks, a monumental achievement in a man whose storied career has more than an enviable share. After repeated listens, it’s not a stretch to state that overall, pound for pound, this may be Erro’s most complete work to-date. Bravo! Highly recommended.    

By L. Michael Gipson

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