CD Review: Allison Stewart on ÂHoney I'm Home' by Al B. Sure
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
It used to be that Al B. Sure was the unibrowed love god of new jack swing, that mostly male, late '80s-early '90s phenomenon that combined the beats and attitude of hip-hop with the suavity and the melodic sensibilities of soul. New jack swing artists usually tended toward either up-tempo, choreography-heavy R&B acts like Bell Biv DeVoe and Bobby Brown, or slinky balladeers. Sure was the latter -- think Luther Vandross with a falsetto and a collection of '70s funk records. He had one indelible hit, 1988's "Nite and Day," released three decreasingly successful discs and then, for reasons never fully explained, disappeared almost entirely.
Sure's comeback is equally bewildering. "Honey I'm Home," his first album of new material in almost 17 years, isn't so much a homage to his earlier work as it is an awkwardly staged re-creation. It's such a throwback, it might as well come with a high-top fade haircut and a pair of parachute pants. "Honey" kicks off with a scratched sample of "Nite and Day" (the unmistakable subtext: "Remember when I did this?") before oozing into an extended series of dated bedroom ballads, most of which could have been recorded in 1998 -- or 1988.
"Honey" is a 50-minute ode to getting busy that excavates pretty much every slow jam cliche: There are earnest, "listen to me, girl, spoken-word intros complete with finger snaps; there are boilerplate, I-dedicate-my-love-to-you-girl songs; there are metaphor-stretching sexual entreaties ("Creep with me/That way"); there are velvety ballads tricked out with strings and falsettos (Sure is justifiably proud of his, and unafraid to overuse it).
Sure takes fleeting stabs at relevancy. There are vocoder-style effects, references to Cristal and "the club," and at least one use of the phrase "hell to the no," but they just make things worse. In some ways, Sure is a victim of his own success. His years as a new jack crooner paved the way for artists like Usher and D'Angelo -- who surely owe as much to him as they do to loftier role models such as Donny Hathaway, though they might never admit it -- artists who pushed the love jam into sonic and sexual territory that now makes "Honey," with its PG-rated single entendres, seem quaint.
It's not all bad news. "Honey" continues Sure's long-standing tradition of unintentionally ironic, charmingly awkward cover songs. (This is a man who was unafraid to remake "Hotel California." Twice.) Sure sticks to like-minded material here, ably converting both Michael Jackson's "Lady in My Life" and Sting's "Fragile" into the Lite-FM dentist's office ballads they were born to be. It's the same treatment given many of Sure's own tracks on "Honey I'm Home," but stripped of his fondness for Quiet Storm cliches. They're the only songs here that manage to sound old school, and not just old.
DOWNLOAD THESE: "Lady in My Life," "Fragile"