In most cases, male R&B singers have to follow the same basic pattern if they want to experience some noticeable success. Their material has to be able to get the clubs hype, make the ladies swoon, make the fellas (at least) nod their head, and tug at everybody’s heartstrings at least once.
Basically, they have to do everything that omnipresent hit-makers like R. Kelly and Usher have already done – both to the extreme of making the need for male R&B singers virtually obsolete. But even they need the occasional reprieve from the spotlight in order to recharge their creative juices. And it’s moments like these – when a fan has worn out their copy of Confessions and Chocolate Factory and is pining for some good ol’ R&B – when artists like Donell Jones get a chance to shine.
In the same vein of artists such as Avant, Jon B, Carl Thomas, and Jaheim, Donell’s managed to make a well-known name for himself in the urban circuit while remaining a virtual unknown in the mainstream. Over the last decade, he’s released a trio of smooth R&B albums that painted him as a slick R&B lothario who knew the way to a girl’s heart and the way inside her panties. And though he’s managed to eke out a couple million sold in the process, his career has remained largely overshadowed and underappreciated.
But now that things are quiet on the Kellz/Usher front, Donell’s emerged from label scuffles with a new contract and his 4th album, Journey of a Gemini. And while his brand of smoothly crooned R&B has only garnered him moderate success in the past, he refuses to tamper with his formula and still manages to deliver his strongest set of R&B come-ons to date. Usually the autonomous musician, Donell reached out this time to some friends and reigned in Ryan Leslie, Tim & Bob, Mike City, and the Underdogs to help him construct and stabilize the record’s smoothness.
First and completely, Donell is a loverman and the different angles of that card are the ones he exercises throughout the album. Album opener, Selfish Girl, is self-explanatory as Donell searches for Mrs. Right over a mellow, mid-tempo, jazz-inflected groove; a tempo that permeates most of the entire disc. I’m Gonna Be is the prime choice for a summertime single since it has a bit more knock in the bass but still retains the mellow smoothness as Donell vows to be the perfect man.
Feelin’ You has that intimate club vibe made popular by the majority of male R&B singers as of late but has nothing truly goin for it aside from the addictive backbeat. Lust or Love reaffirms Mike City’s genius (the things that man can do with percussion!) and puts some much needed pep in the album’s step while Ryan Leslie drops the ball on If U Want which is a mediocre attempt at pop&b gone even more wrong thanks to a cameo from Bun B.
Then there’s Donell’s numerous attempts at flexing his finesse between the sheets. Mike City shows how to make the intimate club vibe work on Spend The Night as Donell spits his best game to entice his dance partner to show off her moves in the bedroom. The Underdogs drop off a lil’ generic bedroom banter on the catchy yet rather juvenilely titled Ooh Na Na (oh Tank, how far you have fallen off. *moment of silence*). And then Donell stumbles into sheer desperation mode on Can’t Wait and unfortunately, lets his horniness overpower his creativity and the hypnotic atmosphere of strings and throbbing percussion and ultimately comes off as a bit too needy and ever-so-slightly psychotic.
But it’s a no-brainer that Donell’s best work comes when he puts some genuine thought and emotion into his material. Lead single, Better Start Talking, was definitely one of the slept-on singles released this year. Easily mistaken for a JD production due to his cameo on the song, Ryan Leslie gives a spot-on imitation and pulls the honest emotion out of Donell’s voice as he nips the lack of communication problem between him and his woman in the bud; making his threat of infidelity sound all the more believable and near justified.
Portrait of a Woman is the album centerpiece with Donell examining the deconstruction of a woman’s dignity and self-esteem at the hands of a man over a almost fragile backdrop of piano and percussion. And Cry bookends it nicely as Donell gets philanthropic for a moment and examines how America’s ghettos are only perpetuating the physical, moral, mental, and spiritual breakdown of black culture as a whole. Quite a powerful message packed into 4:00.
And last but not least are Cuttin’ Me Off and Another Life; both serving to round out the album nicely. For the former, The Underdogs straight bite their own formula from Omarion’s trite “O” but thankfully, pad this one’s subject matter with a little more substance (Donell frustrated at his girlfriend’s accusations of infidelity). And for the latter, Donell takes over the production seat and creates a rather ominous atmosphere as he tackles an interesting subject of not wanting to play stepdad and fracture the developing mother/son bond between his love interest and her child. The pain and regret is noticeable in Donell’s voice but is shaded over nicely with resilience.
All in all, Journey of a Gemini, is one of the stronger R&B albums to be quietly released this year. It probably won’t earn Donell any new fans but it will definitely earn him more respect and support from the ones who’ve followed him this far. The vocals are pitch-perfect, the production is smooth and the overall concepts are well-executed; all working to prove that while Donell may not have the same presence and star power as the headliners of the male R&B show, whenever need be, he steps into the spotlight and plays the role just as fine.