By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
LIKE HIS PRODUCER Babyface, Tony Rich is more than merely respectful of women. He's almost anthropologically fascinated by them: their desires, their thoughts; the way they do their hair and the way they do their laundry. His mission isn't merely to get you in bed, but to plumb the female psyche, or at least that part of it he can glean and expose within the space of a four-minute quiet-storm ballad.
And to prove that he's done his research, he casts himself as the ideal leading man, the lover who will bring a happy ending to every woman's private Waiting To Exhale. He'll bake you a cake, draw you a bubble bath, and, though he'd never embarrass you by mentioning it on disc, go down on you before you'd even think to send him south. With the help of knob-needlers L.A. and Babyface--two funky 'n' chic interior decorators to say the least--Tony tastefully arranges a domestic alternative to the buzzing Atlanta nightlife that functions as a playground of flirtation for his black, bourgeois characters.
On Birdseye, the shrill P-Funk synth whine that Dre rode to the bank on so many singles has softened into a background lull, wrapping the insinuating bump of the bass and unobtrusive crispness of the rhythms in a silky gauze. Rich blends obligingly with the decor. His falsetto lounges, radiating an assumed affluence that's essential to his theory that ladies prefer a homebody to a homeboy. Players may boast that "money ain't a thing," but Rich understands that when you're financially secure, rattling off your bank account is as gauche a come-on as asking a woman what her sign is.
Of course, when he gets dumped, Rich whips his clichés into such a lush pout he might as well be scrawling sonnet cycles to his coy mistress. So blame his unfortunate need to compare women to angels (flying away and breaking Tony's heart) on a fondness for traditional tropes. "My Stomach Hurts," on which Tony tightens his throat in a display of vulnerability, is convincingly gut-wrenching. The potentially suicidal depressive in "I'm Not Ready" (whose "you" is the only reason to live) is just milking a style in which a good performer can get as much play out of seductive disappointment as eternal bliss. Besides, for this committed stay-at-homie, heartbreak is a mere inconvenience, an interruption of the domestic contentment he prizes.