New hip-hop harmonizers merge street-savvy pulse with melodic soul singing

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Unless you knew better, it would be easy to mistake Joe Public's "Joe Public" (Columbia 48628) for a rap album. It starts like a rap recording, after all, with a churning fatback drum pulse and a wash of familiar samples (James Brown and all the usual suspects); even the singsong chorus sounds like the sort of thing you'd expect at the beginning of a rap jam.

Joe Public isn't a rap act, though -- it's a singing group. And despite its reliance on rap and rap-derived rhythmic ideas, the heart of Joe Public's sound isn't rhyming, but harmonizing.

In fact, the group is part of a small but growing movement intent on applying the melodic sophistication of soul harmony singing to the street-savvy pulse of hip-hop. It's not a new idea, of course; Teddy Riley's "new jack swing" grew out of a similar merger of R&B; vocals and rap-style groove, while the members of Bell Biv DeVoe turned their taste for rhyme into an integral part of the group's sound. Moreover, hip-hop harmony groups date back at least a decade to Full Force or the neo-doo wop of the Force M.D.'s.

But the difference with this new crop of hip-hop harmonizers is that they don't see their embrace of soul singing as a crossover move but as a natural outgrowth of hip-hop. Just as rappers themselves have begun to broaden their musical palette through the use of live instruments, different textures and a wider range of vocal styles, groups like Joe Public have merely changed the music's means, not its end.

Admittedly, the distinction between a new jack soul group like Bell Biv DeVoe and a hip-hop harmony combo like Joe Public can seem pretty slight -- particularly if both acts are reduced to mere generalization. Listen closely, though; it's easier to hear where an album like "Joe Public" parts company with R&B.;

Like rap, the songs on this album seem not only to derive most of their momentum from the basic groove, but also use textural shifts, rather than key changes or melodic development, to differentiate between a song's verse, chorus and bridge. In "I Gotta Thang," for instance, the vocal line varies very little as the song rolls from verse to chorus, while the drumming doesn't seem to change at all.

But the samples and the keyboard part shift dramatically, going from an antsy, stabbing synth line on the verse to brassy, sample-packed patterns on the chorus. In effect, it's as if the song moves from section to section by changing mood, not melody -- and that's a device rappers use all the time.

These Joes also break into rap from time to time, a move that has become so commonplace among R&B; singers as to seem unremarkable. What is noteworthy, though, is that Joe Public manages the transition so seamlessly, and that's probably because most of the group's secondary melodies mimic the singsong cadences of rap. Thus, though "Live and Learn" has a strongly tuneful bridge and a chorus reminiscent of "The Beat Goes On," the verse is built around a melody so monochromatic that it changes pitch only slightly more frequently than the song-closing rap.

To old-style soul fans, this insistence on melodic minimalism may seem a self-defeating strategy. Back in the '60s, rhythm was merely the engine that pushed a pop tune on its way; consequently, no matter how central the Motown beat might have been to the sound of a Smokey Robinson or Supremes single, its relationship to the hook was always supportive.

But today, it's the beat that sets the agenda for pop recordings, meaning that almost everything else -- from the complexity of the arrangement to the way the verse and chorus are phrased -- descends from the music's underlying pulse.

And Joe Public's songs push that to an extreme. "I Like It," for example, makes sure that its melodies are built around syncopations that not only echo the basic beat but leave plenty of room for groove-enhancing samples and drum fills; likewise, "I've Been Watchin' " is peppered with pauses that frame its rhythmic momentum.

Naturally, it isn't all groove. Often, the samples are used to underscore a lyrical idea, as on "I Gotta Thang," where sound bites from Bobby Byrd's "I Know You Got Soul" and "Hot Pants I'm Comin' " are used in humorous counterpoint to the chorus. Similarly, "I've Been Watchin' " spices its instrumental break with a piano solo that quotes knowingly from James Brown's "Sex Machine." (That piano break isn't a sample, by the way; it's played by one of the Joes, as are all the bass and guitar parts).

Nonetheless, Joe Public's approach to rhythm is what ultimately gives it an edge over groups like Jodeci or Boyz II Men. Not that these others are anything to sniff at, as the Boyz are masters of close harmony singing while Jodeci has a much better grasp of the vocal interplay that enlivened the sound of groups like the O'Jays.

Yet no matter how well-sung Jodeci's debut, "Forever My Lady" (MCA 10198), might be, the group has a hard time bringing anything original to its blend of rhythm and melody. On the slow songs (that is, the entire first half of the album), Jodeci sounds like little more than a Guy clone, with lead vocalist Jojo offering a passable Aaron Hall impression while musical mastermind DeVante Swing does his damnedest to sound like a second Teddy Riley.

Still, that's better than the up-tempo tunes, which find the group desperately (and often unsuccessfully) trying to emulate the dense beats and verbal sass of BBD.

Boyz II Men are even more explicit in their BBD envy, but at least they have an excuse -- BBD's Michael "Biv" Bivens is the Boyz' manager. Nonetheless, their "Cooleyhighharmony" (Motown 6320) takes even fewer chances than the Jodeci album, emphasizing the quartet's slick harmonizing at the expense of almost everything else.

That works well enough on the album's "Adagio" side, where the silky-smooth vocals are applied to utterly conventional romantic balladry with no significant attempts at a hip-hop/soul fusion. On the "Allegro" side (where the songs aren't that much faster, but are considerably funkier), however, the group does try to negotiate a merger, and though a certain amount of excitement is generated by the contrast between the music's lush singing and raw rhythms, there's none of the chemistry expected of a true crossover.

But both "Forever My Lady" and "Cooleyhighharmony" preceded Joe Public" by more than six months -- plenty of time for styles to change and tastes to refine themselves. And though it's hard to say where they'll be in another six months, odds are that we'll be hearing more harmonized hip-hop as time goes on.

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