The Small Town New York Boy Became a Good Singer and Songwriter: Brian McKnight and his album Just Me

By Daniel Garrett

Brian McKnight, Just Me
Executive Producer Brian McKnight
Entertainment One, 2011

Brian McKnight is an intelligently romantic personality in an age of cynicism; a talented musician and composer whose voice alone raises him above the station of his supposed peers, but who demonstrates the sense and discriminating judgement that forms the basis of good taste. In his songs one hears a beauty, dignity, quiet, and tenderness that are rare, qualities that sit on a foundation of human decency and assume relationship as an ideal. Brian McKnight’s “Temptation” is a slinky rhythm-and-blues song, infused with desire and fear and moral sense, the kind of song Michael Jackson recorded: about a committed man’s flirtation with erotic danger in the form of a woman who seems determined to seduce him, though he resists, threatening his family life; and with the participation of McKnight’s son, Brian Jr., it becomes the scene of a father’s humility and advice. McKnight sings “Fall 5.0” in a somewhat hushed voice, holding his power, and, in a song about being infatuated, on the cusp of falling in love, the chorus is repeated enough times for it to register with the slowest person in a class, the kind of thing McKnight mocks in live performance. “One Mo Time,” a sad ballad about the impending end of a relationship, is complicated by a man’s attempt at a last-time seduction. (“‘One Mo Time’ is a blues-inflected cut about a breakup on which McKnight’s supple singing makes the regret and yearning palpable,” wrote Ken Capobianco, Boston.com, July 12, 2011). Those three songs are among ten that form Brian McKnight’s studio album, Just Me, which is packaged with a second concert disk, The Live Album, in which McKnight describes his early playing and the performers he admired, Nat King Cole, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, and performs his most popular songs. The concert was staged, reportedly, in February 2011 at the three-tiered Avalon Hollywood theater before a thousand guests or more; and was a chance, as the artist said to Amber Wilson of the web site “Haute Living” (February 11, 2011) for the audience “to see the real me in addition to what I do and how I do it.” The much-anticipated two-disk Just Me, originally scheduled for April then rescheduled for July, is a special collection.

The Live Album reminds me that some of the most popular African-American performers remain mysteries, even to their audience. One has to look for them in their work, but also be prepared to go beyond the official or well-known record. I recall hearing a live performance in which the singer Roberta Flack talked about her youthful interest in European classical music, and her belief that she would not find sufficient professional opportunity there (her successful popular music career may have been a second choice). McKnight was born and lived in Buffalo, New York, before he and his family moved to Orlando, Florida; and he has spoken about doubting that he, a small-town boy, could have a music career, until his older brother Claude began to have one with the gospel group Take 6 in 1987. In concert McKnight talks about how his mother’s strictness when he was a boy inclined him not to study music with her, though she was well-trained, but rather to pick up piano-playing on his own, while also pursuing sports. McKnight speaks with humorous candor, before displaying gospel, classical, and jazz skills, even playing a sonata, and then doing apt impersonations of the suave Nat Cole, the imaginative and intense Stevie Wonder, and Michael Jackson. The listener also can hear a little Marvin Gaye and Luther Vandross in McKnight’s singing—which actually reminds one that McKnight usually has a very clean singing style, without excess manner; and McKnight is most impressive when being himself. McKnight says that Stevie Wonder, whom he considers in a category of his own, made him rethink music. (Knowing that Brian McKnight has long admired a diversity of music, including The Platters, the Swan Silvertones, the Mighty Clouds of Joy, Nat King Cole, Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan, Woody Herman, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, Michael McDonald, James Ingram, and Michael Sembello, explains a lot.) McKnight’s concert rendition of Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love” is good enough to make one want more, as is McKnight’s guitar playing in “Can You Read My Mind.” He performs some songs with his talented children, among them “Do You Ever Think About Me” and “Temptation” being most impressive, the first with an arrangement that begins slow and becomes convulsive. For the most part, it is an enjoyable, well-paced concert.

Brian McKnight signed a record deal when he was 19, and produced his first album three years later, when he was 22 in 1992, establishing himself in the eyes of the public with what the writer David Ritz once called an enormous gift distinguished by a blend of exquisite delicacy and muscular energy; and since then, with about fifteen albums, McKnight has become a standard-bearer. McKnight’s two-disk Just Me collection is, obviously, a generous set. The first part, the studio album, shows that McKnight, whose career has lasted twenty years, has not lost his appeal or his vigor; and were it not for the age-related exclusions of current radio formats, the presence of his work would shame younger artists. While many of them treat sex like a nasty and intoxicating discovery, McKnight puts sex in the context of love, even amid his bluntest entreaty (“Gimme Yo Love”); and he sings a song about illicit love, “Husband 2.1,” in a thickened voice over a heavy beat, with a rock guitar, the kind of rock-soul song Michael Jackson mastered and used to express his psychology (desire and fear). McKnight embraces freedom and sophistication, but recognizes their limits, in “Without You,” in which he sings of traveling to London and Paris, Alaska, Cairo, and Rome, going from mellow to anguished, looking for a replacement for his love: “I’ve been around the world to find another girl, but there is no love without you.” His narrator asks an ambivalent woman to decide what she wants, in lyrics that are casual rather than careless, in “Just Lemme Know,” followed by “End and Beginning with You.” I found McKnight’s rendering of George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley’s song about guilty contact, “Careless Whisper,” to be beautiful—slow and tender, allowing one to hear and believe every word. (Obviously I do not agree with the reviewer at the Grown Folks Music site who considered the song too slow.) The song “Just Me” is an honest, affirming confession, a nice conclusion; although it is arguable that this collection of sounds, like genuine love itself, has no conclusion, hovering always in the air, in memory.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader. Garrett is organizing an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art. He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth, which awaits publication.

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