There was a period in the late 80s and early 90s when Alexander O'Neal was THE MAN. At a time when the solo male R&B singer was in decline, O'Neal stood tall with a slick, gangster look and one of the strongest, most distinctive voices in popular music. And unlike most of the soul lovermen of his time, O'Neal showed impressive versatility, able to nail a smooth cut such as "If You Were Here Tonight" but also tear up a killer dance track like "Fake." He was the perfect vehicle for the songs and board work of super producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis...until suddenly he wasn't. After three top selling albums with Jam and Lewis, in 1993 O'Neal was out of the hitmakers' stable and his fall from the mountaintop was quick. He never again had a major hit and by end of the decade was an oldies act.
A move to the U.K., where O'Neal was enormously popular, provided for him a continued career performing his past hits on stage, but his fans (this writer included) couldn't help but believe that there was more gas in his tank. So it was particular pleasing to have 5 Questions the New Journey land on my desk. Produced by O'Neal with longtime musical director Billy Osborne (formerly of L.T.D. and Osborne and Giles), 5 Questions attempts to recapture the energy of Minneapolis, 1986, and it generally succeeds.
O'Neal clearly approached 5 Questions with a goal of not issuing the kind of tepid, covers-filled "comeback" disc that so many of his 80s R&B peers have released over the past few years, and he makes his statement from the start with two blistering funk cuts, "My House" and "I'm Back," both of which sound like outtakes from a Time album, circa 1985. Neither song is a killer, but O'Neal rips through them nicely and one ups them on the subsequent midtempo cuts "Minnesota Shuffle" "I Found True Love" and "Love Don't Love Nobody" (not the old Spinners song). The album only truly slips on the back to back disappointments of ersatz jazzy "You Make Me Smile" and a mediocre remake of the classic Philly cut, "Love Won't Let Me Wait." Impressively, it recovers quickly with what may be its finest song, "5 Questions," and a great closing ballad, "First Time." Throughout the disc, O'Neal and Osborne keep the pace going well, bringing both material and arrangements that support and don't distract from O'Neal's most recognizeable instrument - his unique voice.
While it doesn't match the finest work in Alexander O'Neal's catalog, 5 Questions the New Journey is better than it probably has the right to be, and it unquestionably accomplishes O'Neal's goal of not simply being a nostalgia piece. Sure, longtime fans would be ready to cut Alexander some slack after so long away, but they really don't need to. 5 Questions is strong enough to stand on its own, certainly harkening back to the sound of O'Neal's 80s releases, but with solid new material and production and a strong vocal performance that makes it a very enjoyable listen front-to-back. For so many his longtime fans, Alexander O'Neal appeared to be here and then suddenly gone, but with 5 Questions he makes a convincing statement that he's simply here. Recommended.
By Chris Rizik