On paper, there’s not much that should separate Trey Songz from his contemporaries Usher and Chris Brown. All three are good looking young guys, have stage presence, and make R&B music. However, Trey is still relatively unknown to the average mainstream music fan, instead appealing to  a core R&B audience. That devotion to the audience has paid off-Songz has quietly spun off a stream of Gold albums and is a constant presence on urban radio.

Both Usher and Brown seem to have recently sacrificed significant parts of their audience in the hopes of continuing their mainstream success by embracing a more Euro-centric dance/pop sound. At least in terms of album sales, Songz looks to possibly surpass them with his latest album, Chapter V. It doesn’t stray far from his tried and true formula of meaningful ballads that plays strongly to his predominately female audience. In that respect, it’s as solid a mainstream R&B album as has been released this year.

Unfortunately, Songz also seems to be stuck in R&B thug mode. He’s been compared to R. Kelly for much of his career, and it’s not a farfetched comparison at all. The two resemble one another vocally to an almost eerie extent on certain songs, and Songz also seems hellbent on proving he’s hard enough for the fellas with club-oriented songs very much in line with the type of music Kells was doing a decade or so ago, before he rediscovered his singing/songwriting prowess and started making more traditional soul music again.

Those songs serve as the most memorable and least enjoyable songs on Chapter V. Songs like “2 Reasons” and “Hail Mary” boast more “niggas” and “bitches” than most hip-hop albums do these days. I don’t know if it’s my advancing age or my twisted logic, but hearing language like that so often on an R&B record (especially coming from someone who sucks up to women as badly as Songz does in his love songs) is jarring and, to put it mildly, unpleasant. Cameos from pretty much every overexposed emcee on the planet (Lil Wayne, Rick Ross and T.I. all appear on this album) add to the unpleasantness of this album’s uptempo cuts.

It’s a shame, because if these cuts cumulatively get an “F” rating, the rest of the album is at least a solid “B.” The man has some incredible vocal skills, as songs like “Without a Woman” demonstrate. He’s not a bad songwriter-he and his longtime collaborator Troy Taylor score gold with story-songs like “Pretty Girls Lie” and “Bad Decisions.” They even put together a pretty solid pop-rock crossover track with “Simply Amazing.”

Much of Chapter V is spent proving that Trey can potentially please every facet of the R&B audience-there are songs that will appeal to the thugs, the girlfriends of the thugs, and the moms of the thugs. A track or two might even appeal to the weirdo cousin who likes “alternative” music. However, audiences you can please and audiences you can be best served pleasing are two different groups of people-and Trey’s best work falls more in the traditional R&B lane. He needs to follow his mentor R. Kells and get off of the “thug ‘n b” tip before his female fan base throws up the deuces and moves on to someone more consistently mature.

Grade: B-

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