More than a decade after their solo debuts, Eric Benet and Kenny Lattimore have managed to survive a recording industry hopelessly invested in the whims of young listeners and the apparent pursuit of ringtone sales. Years before "grown and sexy" became a marketing scheme to sell music to 30-somethings, Benet and Lattimore both made music for grown folk. Though neither became a recognizable star on the level of some of their peers such as R. Kelly and Maxwell, each has nevertheless had a solid, if not stellar, career. As much of contemporary R&B harks back to a distant past—if we are to listen to the likes of Solange and Raphael Saadiq—it is fitting that Benet and Lattimore are also looking back on their new recordings, Benet's Love & Life and Lattimore's Timeless.
Benet's debut recording, True to Myself (1996), largely went under the radar, expect for keen listeners who could detect the still nascent neo-soul influences on his sound. Benet produced an intensely personal recording, particularly the haunting "While You Were Here," which was dedicated to the memory of the mother of his daughter India, who died in a car accident. More to the point, this was music that was conversant with both the rhythms of R&B in the mid-1990s and the broader influences of the polished soul of the late 1970s, when figures such as Peabo Bryson, Stephanie Mills and Luther Vandross were first gaining a following. Benet's musical palette and his willingness to engage in personal narrative have served him well, as he managed to not be pigeonholed within a genre that seemingly demands devotion to the hotness of the moment.
Benet might have remained off the radar if not for two high-profile pairings—one musical, the other romantic. The lead single from Benet's 1999 follow-up A Day in the Life was a remake of Charme's (featuring a young Luther Vandross) "Georgy Porgy," later popularized by Toto featuring Cheryl Lynn. In an obvious attempt to reach a younger audience, Benet's version featured vocals by Faith Evans. The result was mixed, but it was a simple little ballad with Tamia on "Spend My Life with You" that got the regular play on black radio that it deserved. "Spend My Life with You" topped the R&B charts and earned Benet and Tamia a Grammy Award nod in 2000.
Although Benet was still largely unknown beyond black audiences, his star began to rise as some folk began to ask who was the man appearing on red carpets with actress Halle Berry. When audiences delved further, what they found was a talented singer-songwriter who deserved accolades, regardless of whether anyone thought he was riding on Berry's coattails. The controversial demise of Benet's marriage to Berry has been widely detailed, and Benet offered up some explanation on his largely ignored 2005 recording, the aptly titled Hurricane.
With seismic shifts in recent R&B music and the emergence of figures like Ne-Yo, Akon and T-Pain as standard-bearers, no one was thinking about Eric Benet when "You're the Only One" began to hit airwaves during the summer (with ample support from the "Tom Joyner Morning Show"). The song played to one of Benet's ongoing strengths: his ability to produce easy, recognizable melodies that recall a more musical time in R&B.
As with the lead single, Benet succeeds throughout his new recording Love & Life in part because he traffics in the familiar, without having his music sound like some musical retrospective. Thus a track like "Iminluvwichoo" recalls the synthesized pop of 1980s groups like the S.O.S. Band and Midnight Starr, while "Still I Believe" draws from mid-1990s West Coast G-Funk and the sensuous "Chocolate Legs" brings to mind Benet's own debut. The highlights on Love & Life are the ballads like the pop-country track "Sing to Me," not surprising for an artist who once covered Kansas' "Dust in the Wind," though he plays it straight here. As well there is "Everlove," the recording's "big ballad" that features songstress Terry Dexter.
Though never as visible as Benet, Kenny Lattimore possesses one of the more exquisite voices of his generation of R&B artists. As such, he seemed like the proverbial breath of fresh air when the simple, yet stately "Never Too Busy" was released in the fall of 1996. Lattimore followed that with "For You," a sweet wedding ballad that features a video recalling the singular beauty of the city of New Orleans. With his self-titled debut, Lattimore seemingly opted out of the R&B wars simply by choosing to make good music with his trademark high-register vocals.
Lattimore paid a small commercial price for his artistic integrity, and it was R&B audiences who largely lost out. Lattimore's 1998 recording From the Soul of Man is one of the most brilliant R&B recordings from the past decade, yet, except hard-core fans of Lattimore, very few ever got to relish in the genius of the recording. Its highlights were found in both Lattimore's own compositions, like the stirring "If I Lose My Woman" and the gospel-tinged "Well Done," as well as a lavish remake of the Lennon/McCartney composition "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and a respectful cover of Donny Hathaway's "I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know."
When Lattimore subsequently moved to the Arista label for his third release, Weekend (2001), he was no doubt feeling the pressure to remain relevant in an industry that doesn't always reward artistry. It was reflected in the recording's attempt to play to a younger party-going crowd. Lattimore regrouped musically and personally, wedding R&B chanteuse Chante Moore in 2002. The duo released a recording of duets called Things That Lovers Do (2003) and followed that up with a double disc of contemporary gospel tracks and love songs in 2006.
On the heels of his wife's own successful return to the R&B fold with Love the Woman, released in June of this year, Lattimore returned to the studio to record his Verve label debut Timeless. A collection of cover tunes, Lattimore's choices here with producer Barry Eastmond are as exquisite as his voice. Timeless includes obscure tracks from well-known soul artists such as Lattimore's cover of Al Green's "Something" from his 1976 recording Have a Good Time (at the time his last "secular" effort with producer Willie Mitchell) or Otis Redding's touching ballad "I Love You More Than Words Can Say." Other choices are surprising, like the remake of Terence Trent D'Arby's "Undeniably" or Lattimore's tribute to the late cult figure Jeff Buckley, with a faithful cover of "Everybody Here Wants You."
When Lattimore decides to cover the obvious, he does so with the aplomb of a seasoned song stylist, as is the case with Norman Connors' "You Are My Starship," his rendition of Aretha's Franklin's "Ain't No Way" and the Stevie Wonder minor classic "It Ain't No Use." On a recording of stellar remakes, the standout is Lattimore's version of the Van McCoy composition "Giving Up." The song was previously recorded by Gladys Knight & the Pips, Jennifer Holliday (who offered the most dramatic reading on her 1987 recording Get Close to My Love) and perhaps most famously by Donny Hathaway. Here Lattimore's clear influence is Hathaway, who, like Lattimore, possessed a highly malleable vocal sensibility—rather than needlessly hammer the sense of despair into listeners' consciousness, Lattimore simply caresses edges of a hopelessness that is beyond the lyrics of the song.
With Timeless and Love & Life, Kenny Lattimore and Eric Benet offer small reminders of the great music that's in the world if audiences are willing to look for it.
Mark Anthony Neal is professor of black popular culture at Duke University and visiting scholar in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of several books, including "Songs in the Key of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation" (2002).
Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University and a fellow at the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is the author of several books, including Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities. Follow him on Twitter.