Embracing an effortless eloquence and cocoa butter smooth persona, the music of Brian McKnight has defined the true meaning of American soul man since 1991. Like his spiritual Motown godfathers, this upstate New York native has a velvety voice and silky style that captures the vibe of vintage soul without being old fashion. On his latest disc Ten, that blend can be clearly heard.
“It’s always been my goal to try and bring back real R&B music,” Brian says. “When I was growing-up it was all about the seventies soul men. From the first time I ever stepped into a studio, my daydream was to pick-up where Marvin Gaye left off.” While Brian’s aspirations might have seemed like a lofty ambition, the longevity of his career is a testament to the purity of his vision.
In an industry that has a fast turnaround of acts vying to be the next “quiet storm” king or crooner on Soul Train, it’s unbelievable that Brian McKnight is still creating beautiful music fifteen years after releasing his self-titled debut. Like the late Luther Vandross before him, the secret of Brian McKnight’s rhythmic endurance comes down to his ability to create eternal music.
With the release of Ten, McKnight’s first disc for his new label Warner Bros Records, the Grammy-nominated singer could not be more pleased with the outcome. “I wasn’t very happy with the situation at my former label and perhaps that attitude was reflected in the material,” Brian confesses. Having penned and completed about thirty-three new songs before signing on the dotted line, McKnight was more than ready. “Right now, I am optimistic of what I can do in my new situation.”
Without a doubt, the landscape of soul music has gotten younger, but that fact did not hinder McKnight’s creative process. “It would be a mistake for me to try and compete with Chris Brown or Ne-Yo,” Brian laughs. “I’m not going to be dancing on BET, but at the same time I believe my material will appeal to everyone from teenagers to older folks.”
After 16 million albums sold since his self-titled debut, it would have been too easy for McKnight to simply follow the R&B template of rote romanticism. But on Ten, the artist in him felt the need to be more revealing. “As a songwriter my biggest challenge has always been finding new ways to say old things,” Brian says. “For me, it was all about being honest and exploring who I am right now. Like everyone else, I am a much different man than I was ten years ago.”
On Ten’s stellar first single “Used to Be My Girl,” McKnight detours from the usual R&B slant of spreading charm like butter while serenading some unspecified honey. Swaggering like big dawg player antagonizing a former girlfriend’s new man, B. McKnight (as he refers to himself in the intro) and producers Tim & Bob have constructed the perfect ex-boyfriend, ex-husband and baby daddy anthem. “Go ahead playboy, do your thing,” McKnight teases nastily. “I must admit that she’s a ten/bet she didn’t tell you about way back when/when she was my girl.”
Spiked with lyrical vigor and vinegar “Used to Be My Girl” is the realest R&B track released in a long time. “This might be the first song dealing with the issue of a man confronting his ex’s new boyfriend,” Brian states. “Talking mess to your former girl’s latest man is a common scenario, but I’ve never heard it on a song.”
Refusing to sugarcoat his feelings of superiority and slight jealousy, “Used to Be My Girl” manages to make public many men’s private pathos. “I’m not trying to dis the woman, but at the same time I want this dude to understand if I wanted her back it be no problem.”
Though McKnight has been friends with producers Tim & Bob for over ten years, this is the trio’s first collaboration. “We just worked so well together,” Brian says of the duo that produced “Thong Song” as well as tracks for TLC, Boys II Men and Earth, Wind & Fire. “I prefer working with producers who can play instruments, and those guys can do their thing,” he says. In addition, the duo also constructed a danceable soundscape for the lyrically scathing “Unhappy Without You.”
Yet, while Brian may come across as cocky on “Used to Be My Girl,” the complexity of his personality reveals itself on the superb “Should Have Been Loving You.” With funky music stark as a gritty street after midnight (Shaft and Super Fly be shootin’ dice in the alleyway), Brian has crafted a song that honestly details his own weakness in the love game.
From infidelity to aloofness to just not being that into a certain woman, Brian takes the blame for the failings of most of his relationships on the “Should Have Been Loving You.” Like Here My Dear in reverse (brother Marvin Gaye never took the responsibility for anything), one feels all goose bumpy when Brian McKnight wails, “Instead of running around I should have been loving you/instead of breaking your heart.”
Using simple words to express complex feelings, Brian once again proves that not only is he a wonderful singer, but his skills as a songwriter is impeccable. “Whenever I sit down to write I think it’s important to be honest,” Brian says. “When I started working on ‘Should Have Been Loving You,’ I realized that most times I’m my own worst enemy. All the relationships I’ve been in including my ex-wife ended because of my own selfishness. Writing that song was a way of dealing with a personal issue.”
Back in love again, at least on record, Brian teams-up with singer Jill Scott on the sweet “More Than Just A Thang.” With a duo this talented, one expects greatness, and Scott and McKnight do not disappoint. “When you work with talented people, good things are bound to happen,” Brian says. “Jill and I have a respect for each others work, so it was just a pleasure having her in the studio. I think the outcome was amazing.”
Though Brian has never been the kind of singer/songwriter that one would call political that didn’t stop him from penning “Red, White & Blue,” a heart wrenching ode for the men and women currently at war. Teaming up with country star Rascal Flatts on the track, Brian recalls, “My best friend and frequent co-writer (Brandon Barnes) called me on July 4th, and told me to watch this special about soldiers calling home. It was such a moving experience that five minutes later I we had written the song together over the phone.
“No matter what one feels about the war, those kids overseas are putting the lives on the line everyday. I don’t think I would have what it takes to be a soldier, bit at the same time I wanted to create a song that spoke of the situation from their perspective.”
Currently working on a variety of projects including a talk show and soundtracks for two upcoming Tyler Perry projects, the veteran soul singer could not be happier with the outcome of Ten. “When I finish a record, I listen to it from beginning to end,” McKnight says. “Truthfully, I think this is the best record I’ve done in years.” For fans of real music, Ten is the perfect addition to the soul cannon.