He wonders whether he's "too old for this," but in the next breath Sleepy Brown tells me that today's R&B; is in desperate need of more grown men. And he's absolutely right. At 36, the Atlanta-raised singer-songwriter has released his debut, the aptly titled Mr. Brown, which hit stores Tuesday.
This may be his first album to see the light of CD shops, but Brown isn't exactly new to the game. You already know him: He's the mysterious, shades-wearing cat who crooned the hook on OutKast's No. 1 2003 smash, "The Way You Move." (He also co-wrote it.) But even before that horn-spiked jam took over pop airwaves three summers ago, Brown had written or produced urban/hip-hop hits for more than a decade. He's one-third of Organized Noize, the superb Atlanta production team that oversaw OutKast's first four classic albums, Goodie Mob's three solid CDs, and singles by TLC ("Waterfalls"), En Vogue ("Don't Let Go (Love)") and others.
But Brown, whose real first name is Patrick, says he has always wanted a career as a singer.
"It was just a matter of time, man," the artist says with soulful swagger, sounding like a velvet-voiced DJ on a Quiet Storm radio station. "There were label politics and all - slowed things down."
He's referring to a deal with Interscope, for whom he recorded an album in 2004: Grown and Sexy. It would have been a perfect time to release the record, given the momentum Brown had from "The Way You Move." But he and the label suits couldn't see eye to eye on the album's direction.
"They wanted radio hits," says the singer, who's calling from a tour stop in Dallas. "I wanted to do something different." So Brown was released from his contract, and the record stayed in the can. (The next year, Babyface put out a lame album also called Grown & Sexy; however, nobody but his immediate family bought it.)
Big Boi of OutKast, Brown's longtime friend, signed the young Isaac Hayes lookalike to Purple Ribbon, the rapper's label distributed by Virgin Records. He and Brown produced the singer's debut, a mostly pleasing but ultimately uneven mix of chilled-out funk and creamy R&B; with light touches of Dirty South hip-hop.
"The album is like my testimony," Brown says. "It's explaining me. It's more soulful than anything I've done before as a producer and songwriter."
The production details are steeped in '70s-style soul. Save for the drum machines, the arrangements are rich with real instruments: subtle strings and jazzy horns. Brown's love of organic instrumentation started in childhood. As a boy, he sometimes went to the studio with his pops, Jimmy Brown, the former leader singer, saxophonist and flutist for the underrated '70s funk band Brick. (That was the group that put out such stone jams as 1976's "Dazz" and 1977's "Ain't Gonna Hurt Nobody.")
"My whole thing is '70s funky," Brown says. "My father introduced me to that kind of music. Back then, brothers were more adventurous with the music. That's grown music, man."
Mr. Brown isn't exactly retro. With production by the Neptunes (the catchy first single "Margarita"), the music is perfectly balanced between yesterday and today. However, it is still too smoothed-out for modern urban radio, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. But for all of his arranging finesse, several of the songs ("Me, My Baby & My Cadillac," "Get 2 It" and "Come Dance With Me") somehow feel empty. Perhaps it's because Brown is a limited vocalist. (His bedroom croon recalls Ray Parker Jr. during his Raydio days.)
Or maybe it's because his lyrical scope doesn't stretch beyond macking to his lady love. It could be a combination of both. But Brown gets it right a few times on the album: "Dress Up" is a rolling, sexy groove befitting Marvin Gaye circa 1982's Midnight Love, and "Sunday Morning" is a freaky, blissful mash-up of Al Green's gospel funk and Thom Bell's melodic sitar touches (echoes of the Stylistics).
"It's all about the vibe, where I am at the time I'm making an album," says the proud father of four. "This record is me being, like, a loverman for today."
And that's a job no boy can fill.