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
TEDDY RILEY HAD the poor timing to patent his amalgam of groovy R&B push and streetwise hip-hop shove well before the era of producer-as-supastar made the faces of trackmasters and studio knobmen instantly recognizable to newsstand browsers. While redefining radio-ready black music on the cusp of the Nineties with Bobby Brown's Don't Be Cruel, Riley nonetheless remained largely unknown to rockcrits who didn't know Jack Swing about R&B. By the time Riley's work with Michael Jackson (on 1991's smooth, criminally underrated Dangerous) earned every overbudgeted penny Sony shelled out, countless snotty neopunks had decreed that you couldn't cheer Nirvana's rise without sniggering at MJ's plummet.
But back in the day, Riley's pride and joy was Guy, the seminal New Jack Swing trio he formed with Damion and Aaron Hall. Guy didn't create the classic Riley jam--that would be "No Diggity," of course, credited to BLACKstreet, of course, the substitute trio an indignant Riley formed when both Hall brothers wandered off to whisper slow-pulsed solo lies of their own in the early Nineties. But it was Guy that most consistently manifested Riley's vision of midtempo, funk-rooted, no-nonsense R&B.
And now--well, I'll let Teddy tell you: "We're back," he intones on Guy III's intro. "And guess who brought us back? God. And you." Gosh. And me? Still, even if neither heaven nor earth has demanded this encore as insistently as Riley suggests, Guy sounds surprisingly well-preserved. Relieved of the need to pretend he's his own man, Hall has improved his churchy chops rather noticeably. A decade ago, for instance, he couldn't have pulled off a narrative slow burn like "(Why You Wanna) Keep Me From My Baby," a dad's lament over being denied custody of his darling boy.
Of course, a decade ago, with hip-hop/soul syntheses still thrillingly embryonic, it was easier for Guy's sophomore album to imagine its titular Future. The gimmicky "Love Online" ("The moment that we started, this/Got inside me like a virus/But destroyed the fear inside us") covers the same virtual ground that Britney Spears's (preferable, I swear) "E-mail My Heart" already pioneered last year. And throughout Guy III, Riley drops loose talk about "GY2K"--a preferable moniker to "Will-ennium," for sure, but a bit silly and sensationalist now that we've already learned how to date our checks with double zeros. Yet even if Riley isn't setting the pace anymore, there's no shame in his merely sounding sharply contemporary. The future ain't what it used to be anyhow.