Just what's in a name?

The Baltimore Sun

Back in 1993, Joe, a 19-year-old nondescript singer-songwriter with a very regular name, showed up on the urban-pop scene and scored a Top 10 R&B; hit with an infectious ditty called "I'm in Luv." The field at the time was already crowded with hip-hop-friendly R&B; acts: Keith Sweat, Mary J. Blige, Jodeci, Bell Biv DeVoe, SWV. They were all distinctive. Joe, on the other hand, was not.

But his musical personality developed, and he eventually caught on. The artist's 1997 sophomore effort, the superlative All That I Am, became his breakthrough, spawning two smashes ("All the Things Your Man Won't Do" and "Don't Wanna Be a Player") and going platinum. The son of a Georgia preacher man had arrived.

And he's still around, outlasting many of his peers who dominated the charts 14 years ago. Joe's latest album, Ain't Nothin' Like Me, debuted at No. 2 on Billboard's pop album charts late last month.

"The title is me looking back at my career and longevity," says the singer-musician, who plays the Lyric Opera House tonight. "I'm a developed artist. You just don't find that too much now."

Over the years, Joe (last name: Thomas) has scored crossover hits, including two No. 1 pop smashes: 1999's "Thank God I Found You," a duet with Mariah Carey, and 2000's "Stutter." His album from that same year, My Name is Joe, sold 3 million copies. But despite the commercial success, Joe's image never really changed. As his music became laced with more swaggering elements of hip-hop, the performer didn't appropriate any thug-isms. Suave and clean-cut with a nonthreatening street edge, the artist's style falls somewhere between that of R. Kelly and his current tour mate, Brian McKnight.

"A lot of artists sound the same," says the 33-year-old New Jersey resident, who's calling from a tour stop in Indiana. "But I think the tone of my voice sets me apart. I'm always gonna add my flavor to whatever. My style shouldn't fluctuate regardless of who's producing the track."

That ethos is applied to Ain't Nothin' Like Me. Though trend-conscious, the productions (courtesy of Timbaland, Cool & Dre, the Underdogs, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis and others) rightfully center on Joe's textured, gospel-imbued approach.

The album is studded with guest appearances by rappers, including Nas and Papoose. But the overall sound is smoothed-out urban balladry as heard on the CD's first single, "If I Was Your Man."

"There has to be a balance," Joe says. "Previous albums were more uptempo. Even when it comes to the shows, I want to get more into a groove, give the people the uptempo songs, you know, but I'm feeling the ballads, too."

Joe says his stage show reflects more of the assured artist he has become.

"It's more of a visual," he says. "Before, it was just me up there singing. We have video now, more production elements. It's just about showing different sides of me. With this career, man, I've gone far and beyond my expectations. I don't control this destiny. If I did, I probably wouldn't have gotten this far."

See Joe and Brian McKnight at the Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave., tonight at 8. Tickets are $46.50-$57.50 and are available through Ticketmaster at 410-547-SEAT or ticketmaster.com.


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