Neo Soul is the antidote to the pervasiveness of whack R&B; so-called music that replaced the feelings, experiences, hopes and dreams of the average man or woman with contrived images and dreams of unattainable lavish lifestyles... of opulent wealth and perpetual sex with fantasy women. He didn't start the trend but Eddie Murphy set the standard with his absurd ballad, the title track on his 1985 album 'How Could It Be', the record which spawned "Party All The Time." Murphy is seen in a mansion, white of course, dressed in a white robe, and playing a white piano and warbling in a falsetto about how hard it is to be rich and date super models. Now all R&B has sunk to this level, aided and abetted by rap culture with its desperate, cartoonish materialism.
Soul music back in the day - the '60s and '70s - had songs like "Beauty Is Only Skin Deep" with lyrics like, "A pretty face you may not possess, but what I like about you is your tenderness." You had songs where homeboy admitted straight out that he was an average hard workin' dude or just poor, like the man in the often covered tune "The Poor Side of Town" by Johnny Rivers: "That rich guy you've been seein' / Must have put you down / So welcome back baby / To the poor side of town." You had songs full of real life wisdom like "Mama Said There'd Be Days Like This." No more sentiments like these in R&B.
Thankfully we have neo soul artists like Angie Stone and D'Angelo and two New Jacks from Arizona, Mello Mello. Mixing rap and soul rooted in the soil of the classics, they are immediately comparable to OutKast. But whereas, even at the beginning, OutKast did one rap dominated song, with a vocal hook or chorus, or, conversely, a vocal number with a rap thrown in, Mello Mello has integrated the two parts with vocalist Rich Reddy and rapper Emcee Xtravagentways. Their sound, created by producer Raycean, is restrained and tasteful with a relaxed vibe that suits the album's theme. Conceived as a unified concept album - rare today in iPod culture - 'An Abstract Love Story' it starts with mellow party jam where they extol their charms and invite you into their world, the world of love songs.
The rest of the CD is made up of love songs of various shades; from the initial step up and game spitting on "I Just Wanna Love You" ("I can hit with the charm that you just can't see / Have your mind in the clouds like the finest weed / Help me bring to life this dream to share with you everything that belongs to me / ... it ain't about the late night call I just want to have it all"), to the erotic romantic come on of "The Best Thing for U Iz Me" ("The best thing for you is me ... recognize your destiny"), and through rough patches of hurt in the song "Come Home" and the confusion of "Do You Luv Me or Hate Me."
Girls cheat and love fades in the real world that this music lives in and Mello Mello relate this in "Movin' On," a cut that really lays in on the line: "I gotta move on / 'cause all the love is gone / ain't no use in holdin' on / you did me wrong and now I'm gone." But just like in real life you can't keep a brother down so they end with a hopeful party song called "Steppin' Out" where they plan to get back in the game with the hotties at the club. Unlike a rap version of the club song, which is all about power and beefin' and scaring girls into sleeping with you 'cause you're so thugged out, it's clear that, like the songs on the entire CD, these brothers are mellow mellow, and looking for that crazy sexy good loving. An Abstract Love Story sits perfectly in a niche that was once filled by Motown, one where people who are "grown ... or young, hip and still maturing" can get something from the music. Remember, beauty's only skin deep.
Mark Kirby received his B.A. from Oberlin College back in the days when heroin was harder to find than pot and sex didn't kill you. He is a drummer, screenwriter, and fixture in the bars and clubs of N.Y.'s Lower East Side and the current mecca of the New Bohemia, Williamsburg, Brooklyn.