(The Root) — Brian McKnight is not the romantic love-song writer many people might expect. The silky-voiced singer-songwriter behind hits like “One Last Cry” and “Anytime” is also the same man behind 2012’s viral “adult” song “If You’re Ready to Learn.” McKnight said the lyrics to the shocker instructing a woman on how her “p–sy works” began as a gag for his Twitter followers but became much bigger, and while many heard the joke, only a few got the punch line, which was McKnight toying with adult themes.
“When people perceive you to be a certain way, even if you’re not, [it’s a problem],” he told The Root, referring to his playful onstage persona. “When people said, ‘What happened to songs like “Back at One”?’ I knew they’d never seen me on tour. Those who have knew ‘If You’re Ready to Learn’ was a joke.”
Having released his 15th album, More Than Words, on March 19 with the lead single “Sweeter,” McKnight is a veteran of the music industry. Since his 1992 debut album, the ground has shifted under his feet, and bread-and-butter ballads like “Anytime” are now saved for Adele.
Even Usher has joined the Euro-pop bandwagon with tracks like “Rest of My Life,” featuring dance producer David Guetta, and R&B’s contemporary leading men are Miguel, the Weeknd and Chris Brown. But McKnight’s career and the recent viral uproar around him have allowed him to do something his successors can’t just yet: be himself unapologetically.
“I don’t consider myself to be anything but a songwriter, because I’ve created music for just about everyone,” he said. “I’m black and I sing, so my music’s naturally called R&B. But when I think of R&B, I think James Brown and Otis Redding, and that’s not what I do. But whatever you think I am, that’s what I am. I stopped fighting the establishment a long time ago. I create my music, and you categorize it however you want, since we have to have these categories.”
Releasing his self-titled debut two decades ago, McKnight’s first hit, “One Last Cry,” made his smooth tenor a staple on black radio and music television. Hits like “Crazy Love” and “Love Is” with Vanessa Williams followed, but by his 10th album in 2006, the soul man needed a change.
“After Ten, my last Warner Bros. CD, I just decided to create what I want and hopefully get to those people who want to hear it,” he said. “That’s when I left the music business.” He added, “I’m not in the music business, by the way.”