Until yesterday, Brian McKnight was best-known as a onetime love balladeer who specialized in wedding- (and baby-) making music. Starting with "One Last Cry," McKnight's standout hit from his 1992 self-titled debut, he sprinted on a decadelong run through the early '00s, dropping gold- and platinum-certified albums that included feel-good hits like "Crazy Love" and "Love of My Life."
When the character Martin (finally) proposed to Gina on Martin in 1994, a moment that has gone down in black-TV history as the second-greatest black-love moment ever, McKnight was there singing "Never Felt This Way" a cappella. (The greatest moment was Whitley and Dwayne's unlikely wedding on A Different World.) McKnight's falsetto was capable of making women swoon, and his skills as a singer, songwriter and musician (he plays nine instruments) were of sufficient quality to garner him 16 Grammy nominations, even if he never actually won an award.
You have to know these things to understand why what McKnight is best-known for this week is so plainly awful. On Monday evening he uploaded a YouTube video announcing his latest venture — an "adult mixtape," as he called it. Undoubtedly, he was hoping to drive 120 mph down the musical lane R. Kelly abandoned in the wake of the scandal in which he was accused of urinating on an underage girl.
But "Sex in the Kitchen," "You Remind Me (of My Jeep)" and anything from Kelly's TP-2.com, this was not. Even Kelly had euphemisms and limits, at least in his music (and if you don't consider the later verses of "Trapped in the Closet").
McKnight identified his newest song as "If You're Ready to Learn" and then launched into the chorus, which included lyrics of such soul-stirring eloquence as "Let me show you how your p—-y works/I bet you didn't know it squirts." (No, I'm not making that up.)
My mother says I should always find something nice to say, so I'll acknowledge that the arrangement was beautiful and McKnight's falsetto, as demonstrated on the second syllable of the vulgar word to describe the female genitalia, remains flawless after 20-plus years.
Surely, this outrageous song was an attempt to regain relevancy by any means necessary, and in that regard it worked. McKnight hasn't been talked, tweeted or written about this much in years.
The backlash against McKnight's latest offering was more virulent than when Mary J. Blige crooned (and shuffled a bit) for Burger King's crispy chicken wrap earlier this month. Very few found it funny or believed McKnight when, on Tuesday morning, he began singing a different tune (pun intended).
"I was just having some fun and look what happened," McKnight tweeted. "I wrote this song, crude as it may be about satisfying all women and look what happened … I'm not being defensive. It's just sad to think that one parody could wipe out 25 years of work."
"Wipe out" two-and-a-half decades of work is a little dramatic, especially when the musical output over that time (or most of it, anyway) is precisely why there's been such a fuss about McKnight's new song. It wasn't just that the song is crass. Trust that after months of listening to popular radio seemingly looping Big Sean's "Ass" — an ode to women's backsides in which guest rapper Nicki Minaj instructs listeners to kiss her "ass and anus" — people aren't really all that shocked anymore by crassness in and of itself. This outrage was all about who was being crass and potentially attempting to be funny (I actually think McKnight was serious) — and, furthermore, why.
McKnight has released three studio albums since 2007, all of which have gone "wood." Since then he's dallied on Broadway and dabbled in late-night radio (full disclosure: I co-hosted a few evenings of The Brian McKnight Show in 2009); he also briefly hosted his own self-titled talk show. Unfortunately, none of those ventures soared, and here in 2012 we find McKnight figuratively selling his soul and being laughed at openly like Carrie on her prom night.
Forgive me if I can't find it funny, because the desperation is too obvious, and McKnight's being at this place is just too dang sad.