Like Hip-Hop Never Happened

R&B crooners' smooth second album skips over genre trends that incorporate hip-hop beats.

K-Ci & JoJo — seemingly living in a deep freeze between recording sessions so as not to let hip-hop' sonic innovations influence their romantic R&B — are back with their second album, It's Real.

Like any good R&B album, this one's for the ladies: bubbling over with soaring harmonies, lotsa "baby-I-gotta-make-sweet-love-to-you-so-why'd-you-do-me-wrong" lyricism, along with musicianship that seems to thumb its nose at the current hip-hop-flavored state of R&B. Considering K-Ci & JoJo's roots in Jodeci, a group that first gained fame singing romantic, soaring harmonies over hip-hop beats, you gotta wonder after listening to this album if they feel as Dr. Frankenstein did — fearful of the monster they've created.

Throughout the album's 13 tracks, there's not a single beat that one might categorize as hip-hop, nor a guest appearance by a rapper, nor a sample, nor an interpolation. The music here is all slick and shiny, with an occasional popping funk bass. Mostly though, the instrumentals are buried, overpowered by the singing.

And boy, is there ever plenty of powerful singing, be it the angry confrontation of a cheating lover on "Fee Fie Foe Fum" (RealAudio excerpt) ("Does this job require that you bring a nightgown trimmed in lace?/ 'Cause the one I just bought for you has disappeared without a trace"), the energetic seduction of "I Wanna Make Love To You" (RealAudio excerpt) or the cry-on-my-shoulder angst of "Here He Comes Again." And we're talking singing here, available in two flavors: K-Ci's gravelly Otis Redding–esque begging-and-pleading or JoJo's Marvin Gaye–like smooth seduction.

Occasionally, however, It's Real runs counter to its title: The close listener realizes the dominating harmonies on the choruses are studio manipulations. Listening to the singers' passionate solo lines and then trying to picture the two of them combining to sing with the force of a full gospel choir on such songs as "Makin' Me Say Goodbye" and "What Am I Gonna Do" is quite a stretch. Ironically, the most obvious form of vocal manipulation appears on "Tell Me It's Real" (RealAudio excerpt). Note to K-Ci & JoJo: if we wanted to hear manipulated R&B, we've got a plethora of boy bands to chose from. We turn to you for the real deal and give a disappointed shrug when you don't deliver.

Most of the songs on the album are about wanting love or losing it, though the R. Kelly–produced "Life" and the album-closing "Momma's Song" each deal with headier societal issues. Some, including the devastating "Fee Fie Foe Fum" and the chill-inducing "Hello Darlin'," hit their marks while others, such as the rambling "Here He Comes Again" and the preachy, lyrically unstructured gospel funk of "Momma's Song," fall flat.

Mixed results or not, it's still nice to hear an artist holding the contemporary R&B torch high and proud, rap remixes be damned. After all, it's always the slow dance you remember from the prom.