The new soul savers usher in a glorious era of street-savvy, hip-hop tinged R&B...
When it was announced that Kelly Price and Jaheim, the street soul superstar on the verge, were to appear live in London fans just nodded. It was always gonna work. Price has a solid following while Jaheim is already highly favoured by the soul faithful. The mixture was as inspired as it was forward facing.
Although Maxee has beaten Jaheim to the release schedules as a debut artist, the scant audience that watch her only vaguely recall her as ‘the skinny one from Brownstone’. Her material, a blend of Des’ree simplicity and take-it-too-the-bridge boombasity does her few favours with this bass hungry crowd, hampered further by the fact that few know her Fred Jerkins-produced single ‘When I Look Into Your Eyes’.
But this audience is very aware of Jaheim. This 22 year old is a vocal ancestor of Teddy Pendergrassand Luther Vandross with the street appeal of R Kelly (before he believed he could fly). Striding onstage to the strains of Pendergrass’s ‘Love T.K.O’, in white leather with two dancers in booty shorts, Jah runs through a performance that is tight on time, low on imagination but big on the revelation of his skills.
And he can sing, with a vocal combination of old skool soul mastery twinned with a hip hop edge and vernacular. Jaheim’s stylistic contrasts at once manage to evoke memories of bygone performers – during the piano-accompanied ‘Forever’, he possess the promise-you-tomorrow sentimentality of Brian McKnight; during ‘Could It Be’, you remember how easy it was for Bobby Brown (‘Roni’), Keith Sweat (‘Make It Last Forever’), the original Blackstreet and the often over-looked David Peaston to keep it street and cute.
They don’t call her the Empress for nothing. Think of the power of Barbara Streisand with rich, heavy flavour and the church-inspired emotion of Aretha. Price’s two albums (‘Soul Of A Woman’ and ‘Mirror Mirror’) pretty much form the curriculum for the school of bad relationships, and Price (an honours student) speaks of what she’s learned with warm, succinct, articulation.
Her modern day nuances are totally on point, while simultaneously recalling the work of the her former alumni (Shirley Murdock, Phyllis Hyman, Angela Bofill, Betty Wright and Brenda Russell), but Price has an enviable pedigree of her own. While still in her 20s she was signed to The Isley Brothers’ T-Neck records; she was Mariah Carey’s favourite backing singer; and she sang the hook to The Notorious B.I.G’s ‘Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems’.
So it’s little wonder that she arrives onstage beaming, a slimmed down, flaxen-haired version of her former self, while Stevie Wonder’s ‘Living In The City’ is unleashed by her seven-piece band. In an age where black music is split between the socially conscious and the materially obsessed, the sex obsessed and the emotionally profound, Kelly sings from the camp that mother’s them all – love. It is her work your delve into after break-up: it’s a soulful solace, and her voice has no contemporary comparison. She bends, she yells, she raises her hands aloft, she squeezes her eyes shut as her hits – ‘Something That You Must Know’, ‘As We Lay’, ‘Should’ve Told Me’, ‘Can’t Run Away’ – roll over us all.
Her pain sounds, well, simply wonderful. Then, with tongue firmly in cheek, she asks is all “to stand for the National Anthem”. Reluctantly the petulant crowd do as their told, and Price reveals her own personal, anthem, ‘Friend Of Mine’, the ultimate song of betrayal (the success of which ensures Price will never sing back-up again). The crowds explodes once they recognize the hook and on her instruction recite R Kelly’s lyrics while her inordinately talented keyboardist Darius (now there’s irony) does an alarmingly tight impersonation of Ronald Isley’s words.
Tonight managed to recall memories of the days when the big American names came to London and performed roadblock shows which left you feeling beyond good. But at the same time, Jaheim, and especially Price, highlighted something new. That there are a new generation of 20-something black artists who are harnessing the past, marrying it to the rap-infested present and giving the narrative of love a modern yet respectfully retrospective zeal. Tonight was the start of something special.