The friendly woman behind the counter thinks I've been stood up.
"How late is your date, honey?" she asks.
I smile. "It's not a date, but he's late."
For half an hour on a chilly Monday evening, I've been sitting at the downstairs window inside Mount Vernon's trendy XS restaurant. I'm waiting on Raheem DeVaughn, the Grammy-nominated neo-soul artist who lives just outside Washington. His publicist called my cell phone earlier and said the artist is stuck in rush-hour traffic.
So I pull out my iPod and end up killing another 15 minutes shuffling tunes before the artist appears. He walks through the door with that cool, pronounced bop perfected by East Coast brothers.
We go upstairs and grab a corner table to chat about his sensuous new album, Love Behind the Melody, which hit stores Tuesday.
"Artistically, I wanted to take the record to other places," he says. "With this album, it's definitely a love-conscious album. I think as a whole it shows more sides of me."
The new CD is the follow-up to The Love Experience, DeVaughn's 2005 debut for Jive Records. Since then, the artist has become an underground sensation. Largely by word of mouth, he has managed to pack small to medium-sized venues around the globe. His haunting approach -- an earnest blend of yesterday's passion with today's slick, propulsive grooves -- has garnered critical kudos.
But with Love Behind the Melody, the artist might break into R&B;'s mainstream. To support the CD, he will be touring in the spring with neo-soul queen Jill Scott. "Woman," the album's first single, has been a hit for months on urban radio. A heart-warming ode to sisters, the song is up for a Grammy for best R&B; male performance.
"I'm competing against people like Prince and Musiq Soulchild, man," says the slight, tattooed performer with large, expressive eyes. "It's exciting. It definitely builds momentum for the album."
Like Love Experience, the new CD is overlong but features tighter production. This time, DeVaughn worked with several urban-pop heavyweights to refine his silken sound, which ripples with Marvin Gaye influences. Mark Batson, Jack Splash, Kwame and Scott Storch are among the marquee producers on Love Behind the Melody.
"A lot of these cats didn't know who I was before I stepped into the studio," DeVaughn says. "Scott welcomed me into his home. We hung out on his yacht. What was supposed to be a trip for two or three days ended up being a week and some change. ... We've made some real timeless, feel-good music."
Two of the album's standout tracks -- "Love Drug" and "Energy," featuring Big Boi -- were overseen by Storch. The former is a lush, midtempo groove, and the latter is a spare thumper that would be at home on a John Legend album. Just about every song, save for the obligatory fun-night-on-the-town number "Friday (Shut the Club Down)," is a warm celebration of romantic love.
"This album is showing me more as the R&B; hippie, neo-soul rock star," says the performer, who grew up in Washington and New Jersey. His mother is a Maryland-based retired employee of the federal government; his father is jazz cellist Abdul Wadud. "I'm singing about love -- loving yourself, finding that mate, whatever the case may be."
In the studio, DeVaughn, who doesn't divulge his age ("I'm timeless just like my music," he says with a smirk), is all about inspiration.
"I come in, get with the producer, and if I hear something I like, it's a quick process," he explains. "I don't write anything down. This whole album, I didn't write anything down. I listen back to the recording and remember the words that way. I like doing it that way because I don't know what mood I'm gonna be in."
That's evident as you listen to his songs. They often sound as if he's singing the lines right off the cuff, free-flowing like an MC. It gives the songs a certain urgency, but they sometimes lack structure and sound listless. This definitely comes across on the cliched spoken-word "Women Interlude." But DeVaughn's dynamic vocals, which slide from a rich tenor to a floating falsetto, carry the album and make weak songs listenable.
"You know, man, I just want my music to be like what you put on when you want to feel good," he says. "I want my music to say something. The message of love never gets old."
It's exactly what you feel behind the melody.