Avant’s Director: An Exercise in Making Consistent R&B

Over the last 6 years, Avant has managed to secure at least one bonafide pop hit for himself with each of his albums but has been unable to tap into major mainstream success. And even though he’s managed to carve out a sizeable niche and fanbase for himself within the realm of contemporary R&B, he’s still a relative underdog when compared against the influx of male R&B crooners to emerge during the same timeframe.

Though his tenor is strong, soulful and distinct, and each of his albums – the pretty good My Thoughts, the even better Ecstasy and the stellar Private Room – have stood the test of time, he still hasn’t become a major presence in R&B. But that stigma might finally be shaken with the release of his fourth album, Director.

His first album of new material in 3 years, Director showcases a subtle change in style and direction for Avant. In reference to the title, Avant said it was inspired by his three-year old son who forced him to take on more responsibility and become insistent on the direction his life takes. And such direction applies to his music as well.

The major reason why Avant’s first three albums worked so well was because of the chemistry sparked between him and producer Steve “Stone” Huff. Huff single-handedly constructed each of Avant’s album (sans a combined total of 2 songs) into the “ghetto soul” must-haves that they were.

But Avant felt the need to tempt fate with this record and so Huff is resigned to only producing 1/3 of the record while Avant experiments with chemistry between him and the Underdogs, Rodney Jerkins, Jermaine Dupri, and Bryan-Michael Cox. Not to mention a couple cameos from Lil’ Wayne, Lloyd Banks, JD and the Pussycat Dolls/Nicole S. for good measure. And while some may be quick to cringe at such a combination on one album, the end results are more pleasurable than one would think.

You Know What preceded the album release and proved to be Avant’s most upbeat single to date. Thankfully, Jermaine laced Avant with a smooth, mid-tempo groove full of piano breaks, 808s and sampled strings that doesn’t sound like a rehash of the other 314 singles he produced that year. Avant’s predictable lyricism sounds refreshing as it floats over the breezy arrangement and Weezy F Baby’s quick 16 actually suits the track. But ironic how Jermaine was the one producer to end up bringing out Avant’s most lyrically creative side to date.

Album finale, GPSA (Ghetto Public Service Announcement), isn’t as tacky or clichÃ?© as the title suggests. Over JD’s trademark skittering 808s, Avant waxes poetic on the current social climate in urban America being detrimental to the prosperity of his culture. It may be a far cry from this generation’s “What’s Going On?” but it’s still a refreshing break from the boudoir talk that populates the rest of this disc. And it’s proof enough that Avant, the artist, can be about more than the “loving and touching and hugging and kissing and ooh ooh’ing” when he wants to be.

Yet singing about the “ooh ooh” is what Avant does best and on this album, he manages to spice things up a bit by contrasting those moments with glimpses of his vulnerable and sensitive side. 4 Minutes is Avant’s finest single to date and paints a vivid portrait of a man desperate to save his relationship at all costs. The ticking clock is a tad cheesy but the climactic strings and percussion provide the necessary dramatic effect which is only enhanced by Avant’s desperate and pained vocal sounding as if the fighting chance his relationship has is lost with each passing second.

The syrupy, sappy love fest that was PCD’s smash hit Stickwitu is reprised on Avant’s album as a duet between him and the lead Pussycat, Nicole S. The song is as sugary sweet as love songs can get but the vocal interplay between Avant and Nicole is charming and makes the song that much less sappy and that much more romantic.

He & Nicole reunite on Lie About Us (though she mainly just does backup vocals) as a couple on the hush until Avant works up the nerve to be honest to his other woman about what his heart feels. The concept seems simple but the execution is inspired as the sleek arrangement and passionate vocal from Avant genuinely convey the emotion of a heart torn between two. And for more heartbreak, listen to Right Place, Wrong Time; a somber mid-tempo, Huff tune and hear Avant’s heart slowly break as he pines over the dreaded “forbidden apple of his eye.”

But make no mistake that Avant went and got all soft and sappy on us. The album still has more than its fair share of tracks directed at keeping his female listeners hot and bothered all night long. So Many Ways is truly the album’s only forgettable moment; a quite anemic introduction to the album with Huff’s dreamy production placing the emphasis on “dreaming” as it does nothing but lull the listener to sleep. But he redeems himself later on with the ethereal and hypnotic swoon of Imagination.

The Underdogs quickly speed up the heartbeat with the slow, slinky and soulful This Is Your Night. Sounding like an modernized throwback to one of those classic 70s love-making jams, Avant makes a passionate night of love-making between he and his woman as classy and romantic as possible. A similar effect is recreated on the Underdogs-helmed Now You Got Someone as well. Huff gives the bed a lil’ rhythm to rock to on the smooth With You and Avant, assisted by Lloyd B., proves you don’t need a camera to make a ghetto love scene on the bouncy, upbeat and catchy as hell Exclusive.

Rodney Jerkins’ two contributions definitely add some needed octane to the album’s fuel. Grown As( Man sounds both like “Cater 2 U (Redux)” and the way the original should’ve been recorded; Avant sounding loyal and willing without sounding like a spineless slave. And Mr. Dream mimics the intimate club vibe that’s populated male R&B as of late to a smooth and infectious effect, cheesy title/concept aside. And last but not least, B.M. Cox proves his master, Jermaine, taught him well as he turns the album’s title cut into a sensual bump-and-grind affair that would make R. Kelly proud.

Even though Avant doesn’t really break nor tread new ground on this new album, Director is still a refreshing listen. Be it his soothing soulful vocals, now with more melisma, his now comfortably familiar lyricism, or the stunning production by all involved, Director manages to take the standard M.O. for the general population of male R&B and add a creative touch. Avant bested himself yet again and proved himself that much further ahead of the pack. This should be the album to finally earn him the success and recognition he deserves. But even if that doesn’t happen, he can at least take pride in the fact that he’s made one of the better R&B albums of the year and the album of his career.

And most importantly, Director proves that contemporary R&B can actually get better with time.

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