(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."
By that, McKnight meant he makes most of his income touring, and his albums are better described these days as promotional material to encourage fans to purchase concert tickets. But that retort is reflective of McKnight's personality, a little snarky and a lot sarcastic — maybe too much for his own good.
This is perhaps how he ended up creating "If You're Ready to Learn" as a parody without foreseeing how the provocative song would become an Internet lightning rod. The music veteran even got into a Twitter spat with Chris Brown in defense of his track, tweeting, "Since everyone's so opinionated I'm taking suggestions on what I should do next, I'm thinking rent a lambo and beat the s—t outta my girl … That's acceptable these days."
So what does he have to say about dipping into social media now?
"Everybody was jumping on me, and I was making the point that there were a lot worse things going on in the world than a song about p—sy," he explained. "Maybe I did single out certain individuals, and that may not have been the thing to do, but why is that behavior actually applauded? I meant what I said, and I have no ill [will] towards anyone … As a father with two young daughters, I can't applaud everyone's behavior all the time."
Ultimately, fans of McKnight's angelic voice will likely enjoy More Than Words, but he might gain a whole new group of followers if, in the spirit of his recent candidness, he reignites his former radio show and just talks. Still another idea would be to lend his songwriting skills to up-and-coming black singers like Luke James or Bridget Kelly — but McKnight isn't convinced.
"Nobody wants to sing the music I create; they want to do dance or hip-hop. That's what sells so many records now," he said, before dipping into more of that McKnight sarcasm. "It's just so great that the music business is in such great hands, and people still sell as many records as they did in the '90s."
Hillary Crosley is the New York bureau chief at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.