Reveling in Carl Thomas' grown-up groove


Wait. Now that's a grown man singing.

That is what I thought the first time I heard Carl Thomas' caramel-smooth vocals on the radio. Spring 2000. My senior year of college. The Chi-Town native was burning airwaves and the charts with his debut single "I Wish." Although its title is the same as the classic 1976 Stevie Wonder jam, Carl's record was not a celebratory, party-starting joint.

Over a bouncy, piano-led groove slightly reminiscent of Hotter Than July-era Stevie, the singer croons about heartbreak. He's the dude on the side -- in love with a woman who's got his "nose wide open," as the old folks say. After falling hard for this slick chick, Carl learns that she's married with children. ("And I wish I never met her at all," goes the hook.) The woman later dismisses the lovesick cat, choosing to stay at home so that she, hubby and the kids can be a "fa-mi-lyyyyyy!"

The single was so hot that the release date for his debut album, Emotional, was pushed up. And the CD -- great in some spots, faceless in others -- swiftly went platinum. The Bad Boy Records artist toured heavily behind it, playing dates all over the country and music festivals overseas. But it took a while to get another Carl Thomas record on the streets. A year passed, then another ... and another ... and another one went by before we heard anything from the singer-songwriter. Now he's back with his long-awaited sophomore set, Let's Talk About It. Upon its release late last month, the CD made its debut in the Top 5, proving that folks were aching for the brotha's return.

"Yeah, it took some time to get the CD out," says Carl, who's calling from his office in New Jersey, his speaking voice bell-clear and a little higher than I'd expect. "The parent company [of Bad Boy Records] changed from Arista to Universal, so that took a minute to get in place. Plus, I never really rush myself in the studio. But in the meantime, I was still touring with Emotional."

His new single, "She Is," featuring LL Cool J, coasts on an effervescent sample from "Happy," Surface's 1987 hit. The song is more about the veteran rapper's predictable lover-man lines than Carl's assured vocals. The track is tired. But fortunately, the album, an inviting if a tad uneven set, boasts several superior cuts. The swaying "My First Love" and the old-school-romantic "The Baby Maker" are two of the album's best. Those songs and three others were produced by Carl and exhibit more personality and warmth than the bulk of Emotional did.

"On the new record, I was just trying to insinuate a young, urban, sexy lifestyle," says the 30-something Carl. "It's important to make statements in pop culture. The statements I'm making with this album is that you can be sexy and responsible at the same time."

Again, this is a grown man who sings about grown things. No juvenile, crotch-grabbing declarations of manhood. No misogynistic, yawn-inducing exaggerations of sexual prowess. Sure, Carl has dabbled in hip-hop, crooning behind rhymes by Noreaga and the Notorious B.I.G. (He is, after all, an artist on Sean "P. Diddy" Combs' trend-obsessed label.) But Carl's artistry and image project a thoughtful, classy guy -- one who concentrates on the content of his lyrics, one who thinks deeply about his execution behind the mike.

On his album covers, in promotional shots and in person (I saw him at a spoken-word program in Brooklyn about three years ago; he was just hanging out like everybody else), Carl looks fresh and together. The hair is tastefully texturized, the mustache and goatee well-shaped. His gear is sophisticated, a little funky at times: ribbed sweaters, tailored slacks, a butterscotch-colored leather jacket worn with dark jeans and designer shades. He's a handsome guy whose sexiness is street-sweet: hip-hop's sharp edge tempered with old-fashioned black-man cool.

"I visit so many musical areas -- rap, soul, whatever," Carl says. "I guess it's my Gemini trait. I try to keep everything in my own perspective, though. A lot of R&B; artists get caught up in the status quo. I just got to be myself regardless. There is room for all the statements, though -- for hip-hop, for R&B;, for everybody."

While recording Let's Talk About It, the single father of one listened to lots of "groove-oriented" music from the '70s and '80s: the Ohio Players, Rick James, Average White Band, Steely Dan and a little Michael Franks. But those influences don't seep into the thoroughly modern mix on the CD. Most of the tracks are programmed, blending classic soul and smooth-jazz samples here and there. But an organic, natural feel is retained throughout, rooted by Carl's throwback singing style: unpretentious, stylish, romantic.

"I like for each project to be a little more authentic than the last," Carl says. "I want every project to be a continuation. We as black people, man, got a lot to give and contribute to music. And I just want to make sure that what I give is honest; it's real."

It's for the grown and the sexy.

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