Brian McKnight - Better (2016)

Brian McKnight
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Brian McKnight - Better

25 years into a commercially and creatively prolific career, soulful and jazzy crooner Brian McKnight aims to paint a full picture of his musicality on Better, his fourteenth studio album. Along with a few elements of the straight-ahead, slightly nuanced funky R&B sounds and melodic ballads that brought him widespread fame throughout the ‘90s, he interjects influences of rock, country, and dance into the soundscape here. The result is an interesting, if sometimes confusing, mixture of adult-contemporary musical vibes with often overtly younger lyrical premises that sometimes works well, and other times veers into aimlessness.

Brian McKnight - Better

25 years into a commercially and creatively prolific career, soulful and jazzy crooner Brian McKnight aims to paint a full picture of his musicality on Better, his fourteenth studio album. Along with a few elements of the straight-ahead, slightly nuanced funky R&B sounds and melodic ballads that brought him widespread fame throughout the ‘90s, he interjects influences of rock, country, and dance into the soundscape here. The result is an interesting, if sometimes confusing, mixture of adult-contemporary musical vibes with often overtly younger lyrical premises that sometimes works well, and other times veers into aimlessness.

Better opens with the finger-snappin’, smoothly groovin’ “Strut,” on which McKnight’s trademark tenor glide is in prime form. Of course, it feels a bit odd to hear gentlemanly lines such as “I only live to keep a smile upon your face” contrasted with the rather blunt “‘Cause all them other bitches want to be you when you strut.” Commercial considerations must have interfered just a tad with the creative process in this case. The subsequent “Just Enough,” however, suggests that the man behind the mic might be undergoing a slight identity crisis, as he details, drink by drink, what’s “just enough…to get me tipsy…feeling fantastic, elastic, gymnastic.” Set to the backdrop of a rather cheesy, guitar-driven chorus, what starts out as a subtle, keyboard-led tune quickly dissolves into faddish fodder. The guitars, along with some new-wave-ish synths and live drums, work to better effect on the uptempo “I Can’t Take It,” which has a simple but memorable hook and shows off McKnight’s classic falsetto to more romantic lyrics and a retro-minded melody.

Better continues on a solid path with the reflective title track, followed by the endearing sway of “Uh Oh Feeling” and the emotive, piano-charged ballad, “Like I Do.” Each of these selections finds McKnight in a natural vocal flow that highlights his subtle finesse and distinctive phrasing, complemented by pleasing rhythm-section arrangements that feel authentic and appropos. The second half of the set, though, is more disparate in efficacy. While the reggae number, “Goodbye,” is colorful in its sunny chord structure juxtaposed against lyrics that speak of harsh realities in a relationship, similar musical confidence is nowhere to be found in the oddly minimalist “Get You into My Life” or the plastic-sounding “Key 2 My Heart”—both numbers taken further downhill by misguided rap cameos.

The more sincere “Lovin’ You from a Distance,” a bona fide slice of mellow rhythm, country & blues, is perhaps Better’s best example of McKnight’s strengths at this point in his career. The down-to-earth lyrics mesh well with the unfiltered production and his earnest, relatable vocal stance. Meanwhile, the closing “Just Waiting” makes the grade lyrically, but wanders off melodically before it really gets going.

Stylistically, Better demonstrates that McKnight is able to absorb a variety of influences and still sound comfortable (for the most part) within contexts outside of romantic slow-jams or funky-jazzy midtempos. Yet during that process, he sometimes loses his knack for what he does best while trying to prove his versatility. Thus, Better is, indeed, a subjective title choice for a set that surely surpasses 2013’s More Than Words in quality, but doesn’t come anywhere close to the merit of 1995’s I Remember You or 2006’s Ten. Moderately recommended.

by Justin Kantor
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