Here’s a question? What happened to the R&B group? Please understand the differentiation between the R&B band (which died out after Mint Condition faded away and Tony Toni Tone broke up in the late Nineties) and the R&B group-four or five guys harmonizing and usually adding some spiffy synchronized choreography to their routines. 15 years ago, you couldn’t shake a stick without bumping into a Shai, Silk, Jodeci or Intro, but now the few groups that are left are in a radically faded state (Boyz II Men-who have the skills but don’t have the material) or in perpetual off/on mode (like En Vogue and New Edition).
This brings us to Dru Hill. The Baltimore-based foursome took over top R&B group honors just as Jodeci was fading away. The comparison’s not incidental. Group member Nokio gamely handled co-lead vocal roles while also writing and producing much of the group’s material (kinda like Jojo and DeVante mixed into one) while flamboyant vocalist Sisqo had a tendency for rough-hewn overemoting, just like K-Ci. Dru Hill went on to enjoy a great deal more crossover success than Jodeci did, scoring huge hits with “In My Bed” and “How Deep is Your Love”. Group member/tertiary vocalist Woody then split to make a gospel record, the group went on hiatus, Sisqo became a megastar thanks to the inane but catchy “Thong Song”, Sisqo made a flop second album, Woody returned to the group, they added a fifth member, Scola, and then released a solid album “Dru World Order”, that sold decently but didn’t cross over the way the two previous albums had. Take a second to catch your breath.
Eight years later, Dru Hill terminated their contract with Def Jam (or were dropped, I’m not sure), Sisqo starred on a couple of reality shows, the group briefly reunited, Scola mysteriously disappeared like that older Cunningham brother on “Happy Days”, Woody left AGAIN to pursue the Lord’s work, and the remaining members have picked up a new fourth guy (named Tao) and finally released their fourth album called “InDRUpendence Day” on the imprint of music impresario Kedar Massenburg (Joe, Chico DeBarge, Erykah Badu).
Contemporary R&B has honestly not changed much in the eight years since Dru Hill released their last record, so the group is more or less able to pick right up where they left off-“InDRUpendence” doesn’t sound terribly out of date. As a matter of fact, my biggest beef with this album is that it sounds too trendy or current. The synth-heavy production seems like a slavish move to keep up with the top of the pops (I swear, there isn’t a non-digital instrument ANYWHERE on this album), and the group’s vocals are awash in the latest vocal effects-a move that I can’t understand at all. These brothers can sing! Why the fuck did someone think that they needed Auto-Tune? On damn near EVERY track! The last major beef I had with an Auto-Tuned album was with the New Kids on the Block’s most recent effort, and aside from two members, those guys NEED Auto-Tune. Nokio and Jazz can sing, and Sisqo can riff cats under the table. The extra technology is totally unnecessary and also robs the group of it’s originality. Of course, the fact that those voices are buried under tons of synthesizers doesn’t help, either.
Not having a big name in the production chair isn’t a big deal, as a lot of the boardwork for Dru Hill was always handled in-house, but it’s a detriment this time around, because Nokio seems to think that people want to hear his monotone (and often tasteless) rapping (with the crass “Whatcha Do” being the most obvious offender) instead of great melodies like “Back to the Future” (and even there, the melody almost gets lost under the production). Like most R&B vocal groups, Dru Hill is at their best when the tempo is slower, and there aren’t enough opportunities here to show off their chops or their songwriting skills-every song seems like either an excuse to woman-bait or like a forced club jam. They even almost ruin Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” (recast with some new gospel-based lyrics) by drowning it in synthesizers and having Nokio yammer on about world events past the fade-out.
With age (allegedly) comes wisdom. The members of Dru Hill, now in their thirties, should be playing towards their strengths. There are a lot of R&B fans out there who want to by records by people who SING. By trying too hard to appeal to the thugs and/or the dancefloors (something that has been an Achilles heel for them since their second album), the group seems to willfully squander what could have been a huge win for them. Here’s hoping they even get another chance to set things straight.
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