Glenn Lewis - Moment of Truth

Glenn Lewis
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There are some artists who woo you right from the start and forever after you want them to win. Artists like Carl Thomas and John Legend immediately come to mind, both boasting definitive album debuts – and all releasing subsequent outputs that rarely quite managed to recapture their debut’s elusive magic, no matter how good those artists’ subsequent works are. Canadian R&B singer-songwriter Glenn Lewis is another. He initially burst on the US pop culture scene through a Heineken Red commercial in 2001 with a song that immediately caused a mini-pandemonium and had many assuming Stevie Wonder had re-discovered his mojo, the Top 10 R&B smash, “Don’t You Forget It.” The #2 R&B and #4 Billboard Hot 100 album World Outside My Window, now a cult classic, proved the song wasn’t a fluke. Unfortunately, not much since has matched, including this super safe new release, Moment of Truth.

There are some artists who woo you right from the start and forever after you want them to win. Artists like Carl Thomas and John Legend immediately come to mind, both boasting definitive album debuts – and all releasing subsequent outputs that rarely quite managed to recapture their debut’s elusive magic, no matter how good those artists’ subsequent works are. Canadian R&B singer-songwriter Glenn Lewis is another. He initially burst on the US pop culture scene through a Heineken Red commercial in 2001 with a song that immediately caused a mini-pandemonium and had many assuming Stevie Wonder had re-discovered his mojo, the Top 10 R&B smash, “Don’t You Forget It.” The #2 R&B and #4 Billboard Hot 100 album World Outside My Window, now a cult classic, proved the song wasn’t a fluke. Unfortunately, not much since has matched, including this super safe new release, Moment of Truth.

Produced almost exclusively by Philly R&B and neo-soul legends, Andre Harris and Vidal Davis (aka Dre & Vidal), when singer/songwriter/producer Marsha Ambrosius wasn’t behind the boards, World Outside My Window was apparently a one of a kind project. Edgy and experimental in arrangements and structure, but with grooves that still bore that undeniable DJ Jazzy Jeff’s A Touch of Jazz mark the Jeff alumni had gifted such stars as Musiq, Floetry, and Jill Scott, not counting such R&B/pop titans as Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, and Usher. On cuts like “It’s Not Fair,” “This Love,” “Something to See” and “Your Song (For You),” the producers heavily played up Lewis’s vocal likeness to Stevie Wonder in tone, timbre and melisma. Though Lewis lacked Wonder’s more elastic range and gift for mimicry, artistically the gambit paid off, earning Lewis a strong following on an album that fell just shy of gold, despite boasting two hit singles and a well-received concert DVD. Lewis even covered Wonder’s “Superstition” from the Conception: An Interpretation of Stevie Wonder Songs tribute compilation project and nabbed a Grammy nod for remaking the music of  Donny Hathaway, a man whose own voice influenced Wonder’s, on Stanley Clarke’s cover of “Where Is The Love” (featuring Amel Larrieux).

However, the gambit may have paid off too well, with Lewis constantly being compared to Wonder and routine questioning by journalists about Lewis’s vocal similarities. For his part, Lewis was always gracious about the comparison in interviews and open about Wonder’s influence, but at some point every artist wants to be recognized as his or her own individual talent. By the time Lewis’s Maid In Manhattan movie musical guest spot hit the scene, the singer was placing some distance between him and the Wonder sound with a milquetoast “Fall Again” (originally performed by Robin Thicke and written for Michael Jackson’s Invincible) that sounded like any other R&B crooner of the day. Dre & Vidal returned for “Back for More” featuring Kardinal Offishall, a reggae soaked R&B club cut that illustrated Lewis’s Trinidadian and Jamaican roots. Fans failed to embrace the cut – one unlike anything on World Outside My Window - and it peaked at #76 on the R&B charts, never cracking the Billboard Hot 100. With an album of material that sounded nothing like reimagined Stevie Wonder, with the notable exceptions of “Gone Again” and “Beyond The Stars” (a cut which landed on Jeff Bradshaw’s Bone Deep), and everything like male R&B albums that were falling like dominos at radio during this time when such men were falling out of favor, EPIC Records shelved the Back for More album. If not for the porous Internet, no one would know just how little personality the project possessed and could take Lewis at his word that the shelving made no sense, but the leaked project told the tale. After spending handsomely on the artist at radio and in marketing, Epic and Lewis parted ways in 2005.

In 2006, Lewis signed a new deal with Underdog Entertainment and found himself with a second shelved album, Remember Me, in 2007. One can only speculate, since the full project never made its way online, but the title track and other cuts like “Storm” and “House On A Beach” from those sessions are all over YouTube and present routine R&B fare; only the distinctive “Don’t Worry” has aged well from that set. After some initial buzz, the single and video with a more smoothed out vocal, “Good One,” came and went without making any lasting impact. Ending what surely was a frustrating journey, Lewis finally signed a new deal in late 2011 with his new label Ruffhouse Entertainment to be distributed by EMI/Capitol, the result of which is this new album, aptly titled, Moment of Truth.

After nearly a decade without the release of new material, this is truly Lewis’s Moment of Truth: Was Lewis was a one-album wonder (pun intended), who was little more than a well-crafted novelty? For those looking for answers in his latest release with RuffHouse, the overall answer may be frustrating. 

Now 38 years old, with 15 years since his Juno nominations and nearly a decade since the Grammy accolades, Glenn Lewis has a point to prove. Unfortunately, with Moment of Truth, Lewis only partially proves his artistic relevance for contemporary audiences. The album is well produced and does seek to modernize the Glenn Lewis brand with sleek urban adult contemporary productions, but only by a few years—barely updating the sounds of Back for More. The failing of this moment for Lewis is in its near-desperate cling to traditional R&B safety and heavy reliance on uninspired writing that brings little new to either the marketplace or his catalog. At a time of nearly unparalleled musical innovations and creative freedoms with genre mashing, structure play, stark minimalism, retro revivals, and intricate, even epic arrangements, Glenn Lewis plays it conservative and old school smooth soul to a fault. The overall effect is an album of pleasant but seemingly dated material, something nearly unforgivable with so much time having lapsed since Lewis’s only official album release. It particularly can smart coming after an album whose inventiveness for its time now only serves to haunt everything that’s come after.

This is not to say that Moment of Truth is unredeemed. It is a better album than Back for More and certainly superior to what little we’ve heard off Remember Me. To his label’s astute credit, there is indeed a mature audience that wants safety and familiar R&B as long as its well sung and produced. On both fronts, Lewis wins. Vocally as strong as ever, Lewis appears less self-conscious when compared to his mid-career efforts to avoid the Wonder comparisons. There are no smoothed out vibratos here. A handful of songs, like the Caribbean flavored duet “All My Love (featuring Melanie Fiona)” and the considerably more successful mid-tempo “Make Luv,” hint at the sonic backdrops of songs from Wonder’s synthy 1980s period. In truth, “Make Luv” could’ve have nicely fit into World Outside My Window without missing a beat, which is a compliment in some respects, but also doesn’t creatively bode well as an illustration of Lewis’s growth in the last eleven years.

As a songwriter, with relationship ballads like “Can’t Say Love” and mid-tempos like “What A Fool Believes,” Lewis overall finds himself more in the romantic smooth soul wheelhouse of mid-90s Babyface when he’s not invading the latter career of Keith Sweat, both musical periods still holding court on the iPods of ardent fans of a certain age. The challenge is Lewis doesn’t have much new to say about love or relationships, no fresh perspectives, or at least interesting ways to say what is already familiar and known to trope-savvy soul fans -- a stunning thing to say about the man who gave us the sensitive “Something To See.” Too much of Moment of Truth suffers from a lack of memorability. Lyrical clichés abound on cuts like “I Wanna Go Deep” (“you’re hotter than the sun,” “let me lead and you follow”), “Searching For That One” (“I want to make this house a happy home”), “Closer” (“girl come closer and I’m never gonna let you go”). Since it’s the least ho-hum production of the weaker tracks in its efforts to reflect something akin to 2013, you want to give Lewis a back pat for “Living A Dream,” but in lyric and arrangement the cut does so little with a dynamically produced musical landscape, weeping is considered. 

There are exceptions - or at least moments - littering Moment of Truth, such as the grabby hooks from the syllable-heavy sung rap of “Up & Down” ala Musiq and the bouncy “Time Soon Come.” The unexpected opening and closing string arrangement of the Minnie Riperton “I’m A Woman of Heart and Mind” on the lighter swaying concert of “Ugly Face” is another. Perfect in its mature urbanity, the midnight drive of “All I See Is You,” from start to finish is the most dynamic of the mid-tempos here. Then there’s the thoughtful melodic arrangement on the verses of “Random Thoughts,” whose saccharine chorus (“hashtag these random thoughts of my heart/I’m in love with you, baby”) will either pull you in or inspire unintended giggles to hear a man near 40 so ardently sing of hashtags. The closing whisper of a ballad, “Better With Time,” is the kind of soothing soul that just feels good, despite ushering in a chorus we’ve heard before; sometimes the predictable works out.

Unfortunately, for Glenn Lewis what has been predictable since the high water mark of World Outside My Window is his failure to artistically grow in ways that allow him to either sew a whole new garment of spun gold or fully come near World’s hem since. While Moment of Truth has moments that shine, its precious minerals rarely evolve into the diamonds Lewis’s early work promised. Thanks to a vocal gift that hasn’t abandoned him and slickly produced traditional R&B tracks, Moment of Truth will have its supporters for a time. That Moment inspires its fans to stick around another 11 years waiting to be so moved again…well, that’s another story. Mildly recommended.

By L. Michael Gipson 

 

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