Two tracks into Jamie Lidell, it sounds like player’s finished. Cooked. A-Rod. Last we heard, the Brit-soul radical fell on black days, moping out of the uneven Compass with an uncanny take on the “singing’s such an eff-ing chore” bemoanery of solo Chris Cornell. Scrubbed of that unfortunate dip into post-grunge, Jamie Lidell comes out New Jack Swinging, the one-two of “I’m Selfish” and “Big Love” throwing down… I don’t even know, whatever it is one throws down nowadays to incite a serious dance-off. I’m not so sure Jamie Lidell knows either, flexing to show he still belongs in the game while ignoring the hard truth that certain breeds of aerobic bump and grind have always been better left to Boyz before they become Men. Nineteenish Bobby Brown, the New Jack prototype: dance-cut shoulders, crotch at a full procreative thrust and the type of “I’m the shit” leer that tends to get wiped right the fuck off your face by 25. Thirty, tops.
Now pushing 40, Lidell brings the very straight, very workmanlike funk on “I’m Selfish” and “Big Love”—lunchpail R&B pluggers that nod to New Edition, Cameo and the First Avenue heroics of The Time and Revolution-era Prince, striving for the same stop-on-a-dime shwerve Lidell nailed on Multiply’s “When I Come Back Around.” But even at his torrid peak, Lidell refused to go through the paces of a standard funk workout, racking “When I Come Back Around” with underwater loops, self-aware phrases, Pong-blips and mid-song intermezzos of chopped vocals and keyboard noodling. Multiply remembered to keep at least one forward-looking eye both musically and personally: the sex-hyped dancefloor panther rarely ages gracefully. By their mid-twenties, Morris Day and Larry Blackmon were already clowning on the ridiculous flipside of mammalian mating rituals, going way over-the-top with personal valets and Day-Glo codpieces to show you shouldn’t take their act too seriously—at least until you caught them butt naked with your girl (or boy, whatever). Too cerebral and too restless to strap his tracks to a big dumb anchor—like the slapcrack drum of Brown’s “My Prerogative” or the fat handclap of The Time’s “Jungle Love”—Lidell’s version of New Jack shirks the hormonal low end and gets caught flat-footed.
Thankfully, Lidell has a Godfather-like resurrection up his sleeve, popping back to vitality with “What A Shame” and its volley of Jeep-beats and stutter-stop robotics. Given the right pitch, Lidell still has the tools to crush it—“You Naked” swoops through an evolution of wide open spaces while “Why_Ya_Why” slinks and mugs like Andre 3000 doing Minnie The Moocher, bullhorned “hi-dee-hi”s and Bourbon Street horns prodded by a perimeter of electric-fence synths. Frenetic closer “In Your Mind” pulls it all together by threatening to come apart: after sustaining a Wendy & Lisa chord to the edge of discord, Lidell sings “Feel broke down/ Feel like I’m past/ Feel like no one understands,” his desperate vocals stalked by his own anxious whispers, the syllables sliced, multiplied and echoing in the shadows.
Like Compass, though, the balance of Jamie Lidell remains hit and miss. The split-personality collection teeters uncomfortably between crossover-minded singles and their far more manic and satisfying flipsides. Fractured notions of self and the pull of competing mindsets consumed older cuts like “Multiply,” “New Me” and “Figured Me Out,” and on Jamie Lidell the singer consistently delivers his least inspired performances on those tracks that hew closest to formal R&B boundaries. Confined by the warmed-over Thriller hook of “Do Yourself A Favor” and the battery-sapped grind of “Blaming Something,” Lidell’s delivery comes across as professional but disengaged, biding his time for those numbers where he can free his mind and let the rest follow.
The Zen poet Basho posited that “if a man goes to war wearing stout armor or to a party dressed in festive clothes, and if this man happens to be an old man, there is something lonely about him.” I’m pretty sure he wrote that about George Clinton. Lidell’s nowhere near old; he’s just not young, and in those decades of in-between he doesn’t have the heart or the posture to write off relationships as “Poison” and breeze on from the ex-one to the next-one. Confronting a loneliness that may never go away, scorching slow-burner “Don’t You Love Me” finds Lidell passionately repeating the title question—he already knows the answer; he just doesn’t know what the hell to do about it.
Whether in-between or on the outskirts, Lidell has never fit neatly in any one category, his mercenary wanderings taking him from the agit cyber-glitch of Muddlin Gear to the earthier Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder-ful tones of Multiply and Jim. But with Jai Paul scrambling brains, Autre Ne Veut shredding internal organs and bedroom artists of all stripes worshipping at the altar of Prince instead of Brian Wilson, the same not-blackness that once marked Lidell out of the ordinary no longer represents an R&B anomaly. Lidell’s chops are fine—he flat-out rips shit up while guesting on Brandt Brauer Frick’s stellar forthcoming album and the more individual-minded tracks on Jamie Lidell hold up with the strongest of his career—but to stay contemporary and competitive, he’s also at a turning point where he has to do more than simply go through the motions.