It’s been fifteen years since the soul singer released Let’s Get the Mood Right, which is a ridiculously long time to go between albums. Not to say JG has been sitting around letting the grass grow under him. He’s toured the country and released an album as 1/5 of New Edition, released another two albums with his friends Keith Sweat and the late Gerald LeVert in LSG, and also became a father for the first time. All that said–fifteen years is still a ridiculously long time. Bad Johnny.
Much like his brother in amazingly lengthy absences El DeBarge, Johnny is blessed with one of popular music’s most amazing vocal gifts. Particularly now that the male R&B landscape is populated by twee-voiced, boyish types like Chris Brown and Ne-Yo, JG brings the chesty, masculine vibe back that dudes like Teddy Pendergrass used to have back in the day. While he’s had a fair share of success with danceable jams like “Rub You The Right Way”, JG is probably best known as a dude who is capable of making the pannies drop within about 10 seconds of hearing his voice. His sixth solo album, Still Winning, takes advantage of that void and is largely comprised of midtempo and slow jams perfect for that candlelight rendezvous with your special someone.
Still Winning gets off to a bad start with the defensive title track. Johnny has occasionally been a tabloid target, with gossip rags occasionally raising their eyebrows about his close friendships with the likes of Janet Jackson and (especially) Eddie Murphy, but angry brushoffs are the province of rappers, Axl Rose, and Michael Jackson circa HIStory. Just sing, brother. As a wise man named Mark Jackson tends to say: “you’re better than that”.
Fortunately, things recover in a hurry. Songs like first single “In The Mood” provide the perfect bedroom soundtrack for us grown folks. Despite the layoff, Johnny certainly hasn’t lost an ounce of power in his instrument. Actually, maturity has helped him control his voice a little better, and you find very little of the over-singing that occasionally dotted his earlier albums. In addition, he still has a few tricks up his sleeve, as evidenced by the piano ballad “2nd Place”, a song on which he unleashes a creamy falsetto and utilizes throughout the whole track. It’s one of his most striking pieces of work, and certainly Still Winning‘s best song.
The thing I’m most thankful for about Still Winning is that Johnny decided not to go extra hard to make himself sound contemporary. Yes, there are some modern production tricks here (including a little bit of the dreaded Auto-Tune), but Johnny and his production team kept things adult and classy and Johnny does not sound out of place. The midtempo track “Just The Way You Are” combines the lyrical sentiment of the similarly-titled Billy Joel and Bruno Mars songs and marries it to a Trey Songz-sounding musical base that would be a perfect fit on contemporary urban radio. The other producers (who include Troy Taylor and the always dependable Jam & Lewis) follow suit. There’s only one song with a guest appearance (LSG is reprised on “Long Long Time”, which Gerald’s dad Eddie taking the place of the group’s deceased member), and the album concludes with a surprise cover of Paul McCartney’s “My Love”, on which Johnny damn near Lutherizes the Lite-FM staple the same way Mr. Vandross recasted The Carpenters’ “Superstar” as a top-notch R&B jam.
Bottom line: Still Winning is a welcome return to form. It’s good enough to forgive him for the Charlie Sheen inspired title AND for making us wait for a decade and a half. Let’s hope JG doesn’t make us wait so long next time.
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