Musiq Soulchild, "Life on Earth" Album Review
-It exceeded my expectation of the product by a man who has seemed a little desperate to try out new things, as he clearly remains conscious of his strengths and maintains his trademark sincerity and humorous sentimentality.
Do you believe in life after "Love"?
We're not sure if Musiq Soulchild does. For him, life on Earth hasn't been easy when you can't craft out hits after hits anymore like you did in the 2000's.
Let's talk about Life on Earth, Musiq's first solo studio album in almost exactly 5 years. If we learned anything from these past 5 years, it's that Musiq Soulchild isn't one of those old, established artists who claim themselves too experienced to change for a new sound. But he also unfortunately is anything but versatile. We've seen many artists like him, whose creativity gets drained over the years because their artistry and style have been so essential to their success that they confine these artists within a limited area, where they struggle to break loose of the stereotypes which eventually fall out of style and drag them out of being relevant. Brian McKnight comes to mind as another example. Is it that these artists are incapable of change, or is it that their fans' taste isn't capable of change? That's a discussion for another time. Life on Earth may sound at times very different from MusiqInTheMagiq, but these two records' focuses are essentially the same: to own up to the Musiq identity while at the same time ever so subtly incorporate the top 100 billboard/radio-hit elements into the project to freshen up in an attempt to maybe gain some new audience. On the first two songs on the album, it sounds like remnants from all that "Husel-ing" he did still linger around, as he spits out melodically tired phrases one after another in an auto-tuned, monotoned mumble, though all the while backed up by his signature novel pop funk groove that supported him through all these years (as can be heard on tracks like "Romancipation" off of Soulstar or "Makeyouhappy" off of Luvanmusiq). The opening track, "Wait a Minute", is a boisterous statement demonstrated in a hook-heavy fashion and accompanied by complex, syncopated percussion and emphatic piano and bass lines, making quite a starting point for the journey. Musiq layers his vocals and claims in a simple melody: "I think I'm in, wait a minute/I think I'm in love, with, you," depicting the indulgent ways of a man falling in love and using means he had previously revealed in "B.U.D.D.Y." to convince his counterpart that "it's so easy" to act on the emotion. The surprise takes place around two and half minutes in, where the song takes a sudden dive as the instrumental instantly turns into a Drake/Weeknd/PARTYNEXTDOOR joint, as the song halves its tempo and you're now swimming in a fantasy-like ambient. Up-and-coming Willie Hyn raps, and then we finally get a taste of the old Musiq, who navigates through a sound we've rarely heard on a Musiq Soulchild song before with his effortless melismatic riffs, even occasionally jumping up to some high notes. Yet with the layering of guitars and atmospheric synths, the signature Musiq sound persists.
Following the exciting opening track, slight disappointment ensues throughout much of the album. From the exhaustingly tedious pop-piano-driven ballad "Who Really Loves You", to the heavily auto-tuned, focus-lacking energy-killer "Loving You"--which by the way is the one song that makes the Soulchild sound as soulless as ever--to the over-simplified, almost painfully forthright self-love manual "Alive and Well", we fans nervously take a scroll down a path where we picture the Philly Soul Man slowly turning into a shell of himself. The title track, which concludes the record, is an indifferent promise the singer seems to be making to a loved one, or maybe an ode to either R&B music or his "Soulchild" status--a track full of potential but somehow falls short, due to the tired melody and anti-climatic arrangement. It's not hard to find certain sparks in a couple of other tracks, however. "Far Gone", a regretful groan at an initially promising relationship that runs out of fuel, is a concept that feels like the classic brand of Musiq Soulchild, who has made a name for himself singing about discrepancies between idealism and realism in love and happiness. It's a subtly pained approach at despair and depression with help from heavy, compressed drums, a repetitious keyboard leitmotif, lots of vocal layering, and an outstanding and unapologetic verse from Rhapsody. What follows, "Part of Me", is a track where Musiq is nowhere to be found until late in the song. JoiStaRR's melancholy alto voice aimlessly crawls through affectionate guitar riffs and a classic soul chord progression, again lamenting at the futility of a relationship. Musiq Soulchild then blesses us with his free-flowing delivery of a loose message that guides us through a chorus-lacking freestyle session. Musiq isn't really known as a loose writer, but he displays his ability here to let the groove maneuver the melody, low-key shadowing his neo-soul peers D'angelo and Lauryn Hill.
New things: piano ballad. Musiq Soulchild is a soulful man, but he hasn't really performed many straight-up piano ballads in his career (this one came to mind). In one of the last songs, "The Girl", we for the first time hear a tear, or a growl, in Musiq's voice. This might be the first time we've ever heard Musiq sustain his chest voice in a high register for more than one minute, while he always used to resort to his falsetto in the past. We're lucky to hear a Musiq in a more honest and sensitive manner than ever, struggling to express to his loved one more sincerely than ever: "You can be a superhero... Know you can do it all but you don't have to 'cause if you're doing everything, tell me how does that leave room for me?" It reminds us of the way Stevie Wonder years ago cried of his feeling of helplessness when "Mary wants to be a superwoman", a sense of futility by which all people who've been in relationships have at one point or another been struck.
Lastly let's talk quickly about my few favorites off of the album. "Heart Away", the only track that got me hyped up on the album and reminded of the past-time funkiness of Juslisen. An extremely catchy hook, as Musiq's magnetic baritone voice humorously repeats "You just can't give your heart away", serves up a lighthearted cautionary tale, and reminiscent of when Philly soul musician and queen Jill Scott first singing about how she lives her life "like it's golden". "I Do" was the pioneering single for which even Musiq Soulchild himself tireless marketed for months. It isn't the conventional wicked love song that strikes you right away like "Just Friends (Sunny)" did, but it grows, as the singer cheerfully yet sarcastically blames his S.O. that she sometimes acts a little crazy, but he still "treats her like a lady". It takes our minds off a lot of themes about darkness, helplessness and loneliness heavily advocated for on the album and reminds us that love can sometimes just be carefree and delightful. As he sings "I don't always understand everything about you, but I know that I just can't live without you," Musiq is at his smoothness' best when he redirects the attention away from all the emotions back to enjoying the music itself. Musiq Soulchild also pays tributes to the greats. "Changed My Mind" sounds like it completely took from a page out of the EWF funky textbook, and Musiq uses his super high-pitched falsetto to attack the chorus in similar fashion to Maurice White (R.I.P.). "Walk Away" employs a beautifully intricate chord progression, an obvious nod to the greatness of Stevland Hardaway Judkins. One can't ignore the gorgeous concept embedded within: "Sometimes things just fall apart... Sometimes it's just time to walk away." The simple instrument arrangement makes for a tailored soundtrack for reading a book and sipping on a latte on a pretty Saturday afternoon at the park and reminds me vastly of one of my all-time favorites by the singer, "143" off of his debut.
All criticisms aside, Life on Earth exceeded my expectation of the product by a man who has seemed a little desperate to try out new things, as he clearly remains conscious of his strengths and maintains his trademark sincerity and humorous sentimentality. It's a better crafted album than MusiqInTheMagiq, which was lacking in focus. Life on Earth, however, does not have one signature Musiq Soulchild ballad that struck a chord. We all love an honest and sentimental Musiq ballad, so was this disobedience to his own record-making formula intentional?