My Block/eOne Music EOM-CD-9439
Life on Earth is Musiq Soulchild’s seventh solo album since he began recording, in 2000, and his first since leaving Atlantic for My Block Records, an indie run by producer Warryn Campbell. The singer, aka Taalib Johnson, mixes hip-hop, rhythm and blues, and jazz in a way that’s fresh and appealing to young listeners, while also accessible to old-school R&B fans like me. He writes songs that are melodically engaging, and even when he uses recent recording techniques, such as sampling and Auto-Tune, he doesn’t let them overwhelm or define his music.
Campbell handles the instruments and programming on Life on Earth, and cowrote most of the songs with Soulchild. Campbell favors thumping bass-drum lines that punch the songs along, but fills them with expansive chord progressions and luscious keyboards. The keyboards for guest Willie Hyn’s rap in “Wait a Minute” swirl around the kick drum to create a sweeping sound for Hyn to play off of. Soulchild’s intricate singing creates its own tapestry, and he sometimes adds a vocoder to help give the song momentum and humor.
Musiq Soulchild’s inspiration is primarily 1970s soul, especially Stevie Wonder, but he also seems to have absorbed lessons from more recent artists, such as D’Angelo. “Heart Away” moves smoothly, with a solid snare-drum beat and Phillie Soul guitar lines, but Soulchild’s vocal harmonies and pure romanticism give the song its heart. The slow jam “Loving You” has a throbbing bass-drum line and a beautifully developed lead vocal supported by expansive vocal harmonies and subtle keyboard washes.
In the soul ballad “I Do,” Campbell’s electric piano underlines Soulchild’s ability to give a contemporary spin to older R&B traditions. Campbell has an ear for the right touch in a song, such as the trumpet solo at the close of “I Do” and the shimmering keyboards in “Walk Away.” His use of samples from other recordings, such as the drums from Edwin Birdsong’s “Rapper Dapper Snapper” in “Wait a Minute,” are smart and effective.
Even with Campbell’s contributions, it’s Musiq Soulchild’s album, and his singing is what makes Life on Earth so entrancing. Credited with “vocals and vocal production,” in many of these songs he uses multitracking to create complex vocal effects. Throughout “Heart Away” he inserts vocal interjections that function as additional percussion behind his lead, giving a more contemporary feel to a song rooted in the ’70s.
Tracks such as “Loving You” and “Far Gone” are more straightforward, with few effects beyond multitracked harmony vocals, but even songs that include sampling and other processing retain a soulful, human touch. The big surprise is how sonically pleasing Life on Earth is. The elements that have gone into constructing each track are easy to hear, and the recording is spacious and balanced in a way that more current pop should aim for.
As a traditionalist, I’d like to hear Musiq Soulchild singing in front of a band -- as he did, for the most part, on his first album, Aijuswanaseing (2000). But with its consistently hummable songs and impassioned performances, Life on Earth is hard to resist.
. . . Joseph Taylor