Too Close, Too Far

Still better known nationally than locally, Next remain the quintessential Minnesota R&B group

With homes in Eden Prairie, they regularly roll through South Beach and the Quest when they're in town between extended recording sessions on the coasts. R.L. told the Star Tribune that "Wifey" was inspired by a comic routine he saw at the Riverview Supper Club in north Minneapolis. Next even wrote and dedicated a song, in private, to the family of late Timberwolves guard Malik Sealy. And they keep up with hometown gossip wherever they go. One day, when KMOJ was fielding calls about a rumor concerning R.L.'s love life, a listener phoned the singer in New York. Soon, R.L. was on the studio line himself to refute some loose talk about whether "the child was his."

So in a way, there was no real need for Nextasy's obvious hometown shout-out, the throwaway interlude "Minnesnowta," on which producer T-Low whispers, "Just had to let y'all know where we from." But Next know that even name-dropping the state can shine some light on those they've left behind, especially given the group's suddenly increased star wattage. This year, R.L. paired with Deborah Cox for the hit ballad "We Can't Be Friends," and appeared on Showtime's Soul Food (in a group called Milestone, with Case, Montell Jordan, and Dru Hill's Jazz). Tweety is pursuing acting parts, T-Low his own label. All three have barely reached their mid-20s. Maybe they'll even nab a Grammy this year.

Still, no one would know Next from Jodeci Clone 4,602 if it weren't for R.L.'s distinct skill as a writer--his ability to capture that combination of giggly humor and unassuming Midwestern mackmanship that makes the crew so approachable in person. In the warm hands of Next, KayGee, and their collaborators, the songs are rife with jokey eroticism that's no less steamy for being funny. Like "Too Close," Nextasy's "Cybersex" is an intentional chuckle played straight enough to make a listener wonder if they mean it: "I want your P.C./Sit on my laptop" soon gives way to "Download all over me." Ever the freaks of all media, Next go on to rhyme "jimmy" with "Emmy" on "Let's Make a Movie" (I guess nothing rhymes with "Oscar").

Perhaps inevitably, accidental self-parody looms large. After explaining to me, and countless others, the difference between "sexual" and "sensual" ("'Sexual' is going up to a girl and saying, 'Hey, I want you to suck my dick'; 'sensual' is, 'I want you to taste me'"), how can R.L. seriously drop a line like "I'm thinking 'bout fellatio," as he does on "Shorty"?

More out of character is "Beauty Queen," which R.L. has claimed is a favorite of now-ousted Arista president Clive Davis. Here Next preach "Wifey" values with humorless spite, spitting swear words for emphasis, presumably to hammer home their warning to girls that so many stuck-up teen hotties are actually "honeys who become hos." It's a tale of a high school beauty who grows up fast, runs with older men, and winds up with "six children, no husband," but it feels like the revenge of the local boy made good against the girl who never gave him the time of day.

Herein lies a neat metaphor for Next's complicated relationship with Minnesota, where their national success similarly represents a rebuke of the hometown that snubbed them. Despite the group's rising fortunes, the singers display a deep-seated insecurity in interviews about being properly recognized--an insecurity rooted, I think, not only in the discrimination of local radio programmers but also in changes in the black community that spawned them. "This generation is different," R.L. told me a few years ago. "Before, it would be, like, anything you wanted to do, people would push you to do it. Now, people are so down that they will tell you it ain't gonna happen. We love Minneapolis, but we had to fight really hard. We get more respect in Germany than we do here."

"People would tell him, 'Dude, you can't sing,'" confirmed R.L.'s older cousin, Walter "Q-Bear" Banks, KMOJ's program director. "He had a lot of 'I can'ts' in his life, and I'm one of those who said, 'You can.'" Of course, Next can and Next will, regardless of what we think. But what about the next Next?

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