Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Musiq Soulchild
Musiq Soulchild Musiq Soulchild

Musiq Soulchild, born Talib Johnson, entered the airwaves as an accessible gateway between modern RnB and the more soulful end of the scale - much like fellow Philadelphia soul artist Dwele. The comprehensible simplicity of his lyrical phrasing is his trademark feature, and since the release of his debut album 'Aijuswanaseing' in late 2000, the expressive and down-to-earth soul star has widely appealed to the repressed emotions of young men - many of whom didn’t formerly listen to soul.

Men and women alike appreciate Musiq’s honest reflections in what he describes as a realistic approach to “things that happen every day”; a tried and tested formula that continues to work as his fourth album, 'Luvanmusiq', swoops into the top position of the US charts.

The album, a collection of songs touching on mature experiences of life and love, covers topics of self-improvement and struggles with emotional vulnerability in relationships, whilst the lead single ‘Buddy’ tackles a need for honest definitions of relationships: “There are implications and attachments that have been put on the idea of relationships, and I think a lot of people get caught up in those things. I think that it’s important that the two people that are in the relationship identify what it is between each other and agree to what it is, as opposed to one person thinking that it’s one way and the other person is in the dark,” he explains. "I just hope and pray that people take a more realistic approach in expressing themselves through music because that actually has a lot to do with people’s perception of what relationships are. Hopefully, expressing what I know may have a positive effect on people. I make (my lyrics) very simple to show that you don’t have to get deep and heavy to express a realistic point, you just gotta talk about it.”

The new album, Musiq’s first release through Atlantic Records, highlights several changes for the 29-year old singer, who (according to him) left Def Soul Records after former Def Jam president Kevin Lyle moved to the Warner Music group and bumped into Musiq. “He asked me, how would I feel about him being immediately involved in my career as he was when I was over at Def Jam. It sounded good to me, and he made it happen”. The move has so far proved successful with his new album’s US chart status repeating the chart success of his platinum second album ('Juslisen'), and the epidemic of ‘Buddy’ remixes popping up from rappers including Young Buck, T.I., Freeway, Ja Rule, Fat Joe Jadakiss, and Lupe Fiasco – which amounts to at least 8 different versions - contributing to his appeal. Such collaborations are notably absent on the album, a strategy which Musiq explains is to cement his individual reputation rather that rely on the appeal of other artists to flourish. “I didn’t wanna take for granted my position in the industry so I wanted to just reintroduce myself to people, let them know who I am and what I’m about, then hopefully with this album I can use it as a vantage point to do a lot of collaborations where it’s not me leaning on the artist, it’s more we’re working together to contribute to a better situation”. Close scrutiny of the album’s production credits reveal Def Jam singer Ne-Yo to have written ‘Ms.Philadelphia’, a song written around an altered version of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Overjoyed’. “That’s actually where the idea came from,” Musiq elucidates, “but for sampling purposes we couldn’t clear it so we had to re-route it a little bit. That’s politics for you. I switched some things around to tailor fit it for myself but that’s what that was all about. Ne-Yo and I are pretty much inspired by a lot of the same qualities of music – good song writing and good vocal production.”

One characteristic of quality soul music has always been its affiliation with pain; be it a direct outpouring of pain or a passionate evocation fuelled by past or present times of pain. Musiq has had his share of it, accrediting his time spent homeless after leaving his mother’s house between the ages of 17 and 23 as a “tremendous” influence on his drive to gain a recording contract in 2000. “Coming from where I came from, I had to fend for myself and all of that. It really contributed to a particular perspective on things, so when I got into the business I knew a lot about what it was like to not have, so when I did get, it was pretty interesting making that adjustment.”, he clarifies. “I never really wanted to be a ‘music industry standard official recording artist’, but I knew I wanted to have a career in music in one way or another. It just seemed logical that if you wanna have a career in music why not be (on a major record label), like if you wanna have a career in basketball why not find your way into the NBA. Then again, there are alternatives. It’s just that the major labels were a designated ideal place to have a career in music. At least that’s what I thought at the time - and I still do in a lot of ways - but creatively I feel otherwise for a lot of reasons.”

In earlier describing Musiq’s sound as a successful formula based on his commercial success, one might also consider that ‘playing it safe’ isn’t an ideal quality for truly soulful music. He rationalises it by referring to my earlier point about the industry’s fear of the indescribable: “That (playing it safe) is part of what it means to be in the music industry; you have to be safe, because you got a lot of people that’s investing a lot of money into what you’re doing and they’re not really willing to take chances if they’re not sure of the success. You’ve gotta have leverage to take risks. In this business it’s kinda challenging to gain leverage because it’s consistently changing; people’s attention spans are becoming shorter and shorter. So, one of the best ways of guaranteeing that you’ll make your money back is if you do play it safe. Critics are gonna be critics regardless of what you do.” So is there a difference between the artist inside Musiq Soulchild and the artist he is perceived to be within the industry? He concedes, “Yeah there is a huge difference, and I’m doing my best to fill in the space or at least bring the artist that I am closer to the artist that I’m being represented as.” Musiq isn’t grudging towards his current image and output, he explains that there is a lot more to him creatively than we currently see – he plans to set up his own record label in the future, and venture into fashion and film-making. “Hopefully I’ll be able to express all of those other aspects: my artistry and creativity.”

The stifling of creativity is a common story in the music industry, particularly where innovative black music is concerned and major record labels struggle to market the as-yet indescribable. When they do discover a seemingly apt way to label a branch of a genre – as in “neo-soul” – it leads to death-by-cliché. Musicians and fans alike cringe at the stale marker, despite the originally fresh intentions of the artists that fall under that bracket. Musiq concurs, “(The label ‘neo soul’) took the novelty out of it, it made it a thing to do, a thing to be. In a way, I understand why people chose the label in the way that they did, it identified to themselves what it is - but it kinda cheapened it because it robbed it of the potential of being much more than what people were restricting it to be.” Part of the problem in attempting to categorise and define soul, is the idea of soul being both a genre and an essence. Reflecting on this, Musiq contemplates, “I think the idea of what people say soul music is, is a little distorted than what it actually is. My thing is that soul music is just simply that - soul music: a person expressing their soul through music. Every genre you can think of spawned from the idea of what soul music is – jazz, rock’n’roll, blues, heavy metal, death metal, punk, rock – it doesn’t matter, it was somebody having a need to express themselves through music – which is ultimately the idea of what soul music is.”

Defining the sound of soul music is not the only issue – many musicians are trapped within expectant personality and behaviour stereotyping. This might include the effeminately sensitive male, the afrocentric-rootsy woman, complete with artistic hair, natural-product jewellery and occasional barefoot performances. Musiq sighs and slams the stereotypical expectations of soul musicians, complaining, “There’s a certain perception of how an artist should conduct themselves artistically, especially when you’re doing a certain type of music. I just don’t think that’s fair, that’s just another form of stereotyping to me. There’s a whole lot of people that are not willing to accept me being anything else other than neo soul when there’s so much more to music than just neo soul.”

“I’ve never considered myself neo soul; this is what you call what I do. I’ve always told you that I make soul music and that is a very wide-ranged idea – because anything can be soul music.”

'Luvanmusiq' is out now on Atlantic Records.
Words Marsha Gosho-Oakes

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