The late Raymond Ollison Jr., my father, was a classic Gemini personality - and quite a study. Like many of my relatives on his side of the family, Daddy was mostly mild-mannered and somewhat aloof. But after a swig of Seagram's gin, he'd completely flip the script, morphing into Max Julien as the Mack if ladies were nearby or Richard Pryor if his buddies were around. The split personalities were always interesting if sometimes scary.
I don't know Donell Jones personally. But after absorbing Journey of a Gemini, his new album and first release in four years, the Chicago native seems like a younger version of my pops. (His cool, sleepy-eyed stare even reminds me of my father's.) In his lyrics, the singer is candid about his lustful ways, which threaten to drive away the woman he loves. But Jones seems to have a grip on his issues, whereas Daddy was consumed by his. After 13 years of his mess, Mama filed the divorce papers and told him to get to steppin'.
"Each song on the album has its own personal space," says the Atlanta-based singer-songwriter, who's calling while shopping in Chi-Town. "Songs like 'Portrait of a Woman' reach out to the woman I hurt. And there are songs on there where I warn guys about mistreating a good woman, like 'My Apology.' This is definitely my most personal record."
And it further explores the twin-personality trait that has always shown up in Jones' music. Beginning with his 1996 debut, My Heart, the artist has balanced uptown suaveness with 'hood-fresh swagger - sharp fedoras and baggy, low-hanging pants. Explicit come-ons give way to vulnerable, almost-whimpering pleas for love. Vocally, Jones is limited, but he works his silken, slightly nasal tenor particularly well on his yearning ballads.
"I'm heavy into the ballads," says the 33-year-old artist. "But working with [the new producers], I'm more confident in my uptempo stuff. I wasn't before."
Unlike on the previous three albums (the last one, 2002's Life Goes On, made its debut at No. 3 on the pop charts), Jones shares production duties. Hit makers Mike City, Tim & Bob, Ryan Leslie and the Underdogs oversaw half of Gemini's 15 tracks. And although strong cuts dot the album (the seductive single "I'm Gonna Be," the summery jam "Spend the Night," the soul-baring "Portrait of a Woman"), the CD isn't as cohesive as Where I Wanna Be, Jones' lone platinum seller from 2000.
"My A&R; people convinced me to have more producers on it," says the artist, who wrote early hits for Usher ("Think of You") and the Las Vegas R&B; trio 702 ("Get It Together"). "Everything is still Donell Jones. I didn't give it all up."
In his four years away from the charts, the performer was recording steadily when he wasn't being father to his four daughters: Keyana, Danielle, Tatiana and Shakia. But label politics held up the release of new music.
"My first label, LaFace, shut down, then I got bumped to Arista, and that shut down," Jones explains. "I was in limbo while my fans have just been waiting. If it was up to me, I'd put an album out every year."
Although he hasn't firmed up tour dates, he plans to hit the road soon to support Journey of a Gemini, which was issued last week by the Zomba Label Group.
Jones says, "Most of my stuff, especially the songs on this album, is personal. It's therapeutic, man. I get a lot off my chest. I deal with all of me, all the sides."
And if he's anything like the Gemini man I knew, each one can be a surprising revelation.