For Jagged Edge, it's about sounding raw

Music Notes

December 04, 2003|By Rashod D. Ollison

I CAN'T really hide it no matter how "ice-cold" I try to be. When friends check out my CDs, they purse their lips and nod. "It's like you're a 40-something-year-old woman," my girl Annette told me once as she sorted through the music I brought to her house.

I'm a stone romantic: an incense-and-candles-burning, candy-lyric-loving, big ol' teddy bear. But I get it from my mama. She had a deep jones for those tense, crying-in-the-dark love songs: Aretha's "Ain't No Way," Eddie Kendricks' "This Used to Be the House of Johnnie Mae," The Friends of Distinction's "Going in Circles" and on and on. Lush soul -- the stuff the Spinners, the Stylistics, the O'Jays used to make -- lifts me into thin air, consoles my soul, moves me to tears sometimes. But all of those records were waxed way before my time.

My generation knows little about sweet yearning and lyrics that awaken the imagination. Men ripping their souls bare and crying out to a "distant lover." Women whispering "magic potions of love."

When my friends and I were coming of age, we had, uh, blow-by-blow music: "Freak Me" by Silk and "I Wanna Sex U Up" by Color Me Badd.

Today's purveyors of the urban love song reach back at times and try to capture that blue light-in-the-basement spirit. But the hip-hop influence is too strong. As Andre 3000 of OutKast tells us, there's "love below," hiding under layers of rough beats and explicit lyrics.

For five years now, R&B group Jagged Edge has maintained that thug lover image, mining platinum along the way. The title of the quartet's new album succinctly sums up how the fellas like to keep things: Hard.

"It's not really about no gangsta [stuff]," says group member Richard Wingo. "Everything you go through in life is gonna be a hard row to hoe, you know -- if it's worth having. That's what the album is about."

On the cover, the Atlanta men -- known for their baggy sport gear, do-rags and baseball caps -- rock tailored suits and fedoras.

"When we came out, we didn't wanna do the silk shirts and Jheri Curls," says Brandon Casey, who, along with his identical twin brother Brian, sings lead. "We wanted to look like we look everyday, who we are, man."

The two are phoning from the group's production office in Atlanta. The other Jagged dudes -- Brian and Kyle Norman -- are unavailable.

"It's about the music when you get down to it," Brandon says. "As long as the people know who we are, that's all that matters."

Although the group has three platinum albums (2000's J.E. Heartbreak -- whose title pays homage to New Edition's 1989 classic, N.E. Heartbreak -- sold more than 2 million copies), Jagged Edge isn't really well-known in pop circles. The quartet's biggest pop hit, last year's "Where the Party At," rocketed to No. 3 because Nelly dropped his charismatic rhymes on the joint. The guys are too thugged-out for some "grown folks," record buyers over the age of 25. But they're too old (and perhaps too 'hood) for those who swoon over Justin Timberlake.

"We don't wanna fall off," Wingo says. "Our sound is real; it's raw. Even our slow songs have that edge to 'em."

"Walked Outta Heaven," JE's current smash, is Hard's brightest highlight: a slow-burning ballad with a lazy programmed beat and spare keyboard fills. High in the mix are the quartet's church-raised harmonies. Unlike the group's other efforts, Hard was executive produced by the Casey brothers. All four members had input in the sound and production, though. Jermaine Dupri, JE's old producer, was not in the picture this time.

Brandon says, "What made us ready to produce this time was that we had been writing from the beginning."

"Not to be boastful," Wingo interjects, "but it's up to us to go with what's hot, know what I'm saying? We know what's up, and we know what's hot, and we put it on the album."

Well, not all is so "hot" on the set. The production at times -- especially on "Girls Gone Wild" and "They Ain't JE" -- is lame and hollow, the songs tuneless, the lyrics flat and cliche-ridden. But the vocals are the album's saving grace. The guys can flat-out sing.

"We're just who we are," Brandon says. "It's about keeping the music real and consistent. Those who have been with us from the beginning know what to expect."

I guess that's true. If I hadn't been spoon-fed the gooey ballads of Blue Magic and the haunted heart tales of Marvin Gaye, then maybe Jagged Edge's "smooth playa" love songs would resonate deeper. Perhaps I could truly be "ice-cold," like these cats. But I'm not gonna fool myself. Quiet as it's kept, I tear up when I hear Lionel Richie's "Hello."

I know. I'm pathetic.

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