Joe - DoubleBack: Evolution of R&B (2013)

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From the opening swagger of "Something for You," it's clear that Joe intends to keep things real with his tenth album, DoubleBack: Evolution of R&B. The 12-song set is a harmoniously flowing ride driven by pure melodies, mindful words, and markedly expressive vocal performances.

For the past 20 years, Mr. Thomas has done a commendable job of walking the line between old-school-savvy R&B and commercially viable urban-contemporary fare. While early efforts such as 1993's "I'm in Luv" and "All or Nothing" assured his place in the collections of new-jack-swing-era champions,  late-'90s releases like "Don't Wanna Be a Player" and "All the Things (Your Man Won't Do)" ultimately solidified his position as a soulful hit-maker with an ear to the street—and a way to the ladies' hearts. Entering the 21st century, he continued to prove his viability with stylish jams laced with classic-soul sensibility ("Let's Stay Home Tonight," "I Wanna Know," "More & More").

From the opening swagger of "Something for You," it's clear that Joe intends to keep things real with his tenth album, DoubleBack: Evolution of R&B. The 12-song set is a harmoniously flowing ride driven by pure melodies, mindful words, and markedly expressive vocal performances.

For the past 20 years, Mr. Thomas has done a commendable job of walking the line between old-school-savvy R&B and commercially viable urban-contemporary fare. While early efforts such as 1993's "I'm in Luv" and "All or Nothing" assured his place in the collections of new-jack-swing-era champions,  late-'90s releases like "Don't Wanna Be a Player" and "All the Things (Your Man Won't Do)" ultimately solidified his position as a soulful hit-maker with an ear to the street—and a way to the ladies' hearts. Entering the 21st century, he continued to prove his viability with stylish jams laced with classic-soul sensibility ("Let's Stay Home Tonight," "I Wanna Know," "More & More").

Joe's last album, 2011's The Good, The Bad, The Sexy, showed a few signs of directional uncertainty. Amidst some preoccupation with trendy arrangements and lyrical cliches, it appeared that the multi-functional artist (who has written and produced much of his own material from the beginning) might be running out of steam. However, he has found his way out of that predicament with DoubleBack. From the presence of live instrumentation, to the smooth storytelling that segues from each song to the next, the album verifies his claim in a recent press release that he's "starting over" with a "new chapter."

It is a tad presumptuous to refer to the content of DoubleBack as an "evolution." Most of the arrangements possess familiar elements from '70s soul classics, while the compositional structuring stays within a safe bracket of polished smoothness. Vocally, however, Joe's stylistic m.o. has always been centered more around finesse and simplicity than theatrics or boldness. It's precisely this penchant for nuance, for example, that makes a track like "Compromise" work so well. Balanced with the underground vibe of producers Stargate and Martin K.'s beats and keys, Joe's classy tones have a comfortable space in which to get the message across: "Giving up control, it's clear that it's something you just can't do/I'm the same way, too."

"Compromise" is exemplary of the evolution of Joe's perspective on relationships throughout DoubleBack, which finds him exploring stages ranging from two-timing ("Baby") to lust ("Magic City"), settling down (first single, "I'd Rather Have a Love"), and sexual exclusivity (the aptly titled "Sexy" and "More"). His straight-ahead phrasing makes the story lines easily relatable for listeners. While some of his contemporaries would have quickly been overshadowed by a powerhouse singer like Fantasia, Joe blends effortlessly with her as he submits, "Sex can make a wonderful night, love can make a beautiful life," on the soul-stirring duet, "Love and Sex." His no-strings-attached dynamics are the perfect complement to Fantasia's rousing interpretation of the lyric. "There is another level that we can achieve, if we're open to something different," she renders with conviction. The presence of live strings, evoking feelings of old Chi-Lites and Stylistics tunes, drives the point home.

Fans of Joe's earlier beat-smart hits "Ride wit U" and "Stutter" will find enjoyment in the grooves of "Easy" and "Baby." On the sonic swirl of "Easy," he relates, "Sometimes you gotta go all out just to make it right/But this ain't one of them nights/'Cause you make love easy." Even though the refrain of "Baby" gets a bit repetitive, the simple guitar strains and Joe's laid back delivery make it worthwhile. "Sometimes I think I'm the son of King Solomon/But two beautiful girls is a problem," he cleverly slips into the tale of a love triangle.

Sensual scenarios have played an integral part of Joe's repertoire since he scored with "The Love Scene" and "All the Things" over 15 years ago, and he continues that tradition on DoubleBack with his self-penned and -produced "Sexy" and the adventurous "More." On the former, his gentle articulation of a hot pursuit evolves from romantic to heated: "You've got your keys out/We're makin out...Love makin' on the bedroom floor/Ten positions you ain't tried before." On the latter, he uses rhythmic subtlety to impart a direct message: "Please remove the stapler/'Cause I'm about to table ya'...You're so fine, at the tip of my ballpoint pen/My bic, my bic, my bic/Say you love it."

Appropriately, the closing title track is the album's most impactful moment. A concentrated look into the rear-view mirror of a relationship, "Double Back" meshes a contemporary school of thought with tried-and-true musicality. Magnetic guitar fills and pulsing drums instill a rock-infused fuel into the song's grabbing hook. "Found myself headed in the wrong direction/GPS love has lost connection," Joe reflects. During the final chorus, his performance builds to emotive high-tenor riffing, before the electric guitars and string section take things out. He concludes, "If I'm gonna find your affection, I've got to double back."

Not too many R&B stars who rose to fame in the '90s have continued to make a consistent commercial impact since—all the while, maintaining musical integrity. Joe is one of those select few. He may not have the biggest voice on the block, but he conveys true meaning with heartfelt straightforwardness. In the process, he continues to deliver solid tunes that will last for more than just a moment in the minds of listeners. Both of these fundamental factors signify his ongoing evolution. Recommended.

by Justin Kantor

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