THE MANIPULATIVE WHINE of contemporary R&B is a traditionally effective seduction technique that hopeful young loverboys would be foolish to dismiss. But those of us who aren't teenage girls (or are legally past the age of enlisting soft-core sincerity to win their affection) require a subtler deployment of falsetto. On "Tomorrow," British soul classicist Ali turns his full-yet-fragile upper range to the task of saying farewell to a lover who will never leave her husband. There's a vulnerability here that asks no sympathy. He ain't too proud to beg; he just knows when to cut his losses. He wouldn't get down on his knees even if forced to rhyme a line with "please." It's a tough-minded decision that contradicts his heart (and the reigning pop ideology of swoony irrationality at all costs). Soon, Ali has entrusted his backup chorus with the melody, as he grittily ad-libs and swallows his vowels like Reverend Al Green's most deserving acolyte.
Of course Green comparisons are unfair to all concerned. Ali's upward swoops can recklessly defy gravity in both senses of the word. His melismatic free fall can channel Sam Cooke's transported joy, or seem like an irrelevant affectation. But most of the distance between Ali and such unapproachable idols isn't a product of failed imitations as much as his own canny stylistic variations. On "Crucial," he sweetly draws out the first syllable of the title only to slam the second abruptly short. His passion is palpable, but so is his basic enjoyment of the sound of that word. Call him Luther Van without the dross, luxuriating in his expressive range but rarely indulging some ideal of silkiness at a lyric's expense.
Producers Peter Lord and Jeffrey Smith borrow freely from the '70s soul fakebook, from a Philly-soul four-note punch of strings, drums, bass, and vocals to a credible Hi Rhythm foundation. Though their sole concession to modern taste is an occasional bass-drum stutter, they're too versatile to deserve any retro stigma. They know when to pop a snare beneath a climactic syllable, and they make the most judicious use of wah wah in recent memory.
But what makes Ali both adult and contemporary is his understanding that love has consequences. Whether demanding a commitment he promises to reciprocate or convincing a former lover (and himself) that there are no second chances, he knows the steamiest make-out session doesn't ensure that love will last past the morning. And he's even aware that sex can make babies.
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