Taking the Winans gift in a new direction

New on CD

Music: in concert, CDs

April 29, 2004|By Brian McCollum | Brian McCollum,KNIGHT RIDDER / TRIBUNE

Mario Winans could have taken the easy way out, sticking close to the gospel circuit that has proven a reliable winner for his big and successful Detroit family.

But Winans - son of gospel star Vickie Winans and nephew of CeCe and BeBe - had a different kind of musical crush. In the '90s, after grabbing first the attention of hip-hop mogul Dallas Austin and eventually the ear of hip-hop impresario P. Diddy, Winans found himself behind the songwriting and production boards for such popular - and decidedly secular - artists as Mary J. Blige, Brian McKnight and Faith Evans.

Pushed by Diddy to devote his efforts to a solo album, Winans buckled down between projects and conceived the set of songs that make up his new, 17-track debut. Hurt No More could easily have gotten lost amid the barrage of hip-hop-R&B works that flood record stores these days. But thanks to the surprise success of the leadoff single "I Don't Wanna Know," lapped up by pop and urban radio before the label even had its own copies in hand, Winans enters the fray with sizable momentum.

Like that hit track, the album shows a different kind of Bad Boy approach. While those overworked Puffy-style samples occasionally rear their heads - including familiar licks from Madonna, Debarge and Enya - there's a meat-and-potatoes attitude that ultimately dominates. Nobody's going to call Winans a neo-soul act, but there's enough live instrumentation and nods to the old school ("Never Really Was," "Already Know") to show that somebody was paying attention to mom's Marvin Gaye LPs.

Gaye, in fact, makes for a handy benchmark. Winans' work, steeped in romance, reveals an often pained vulnerability - a straight-up penchant for broken hearts and the introspection that comes with the territory. Though there's little in his vocals to mark him as a stand-out singer, Winans has an expressive soul voice that avoids over-the-top temptations.

But what could give Hurt No More real legs is its sound, a tasteful blend of thumping hip-hop beats padded with light strings, piano and guitar. And there's real old-fashioned melody here too, with cuts such as "3 Days Ago" and "Pretty Girl" (featuring a saucy contribution from Foxy Brown) pointing the way toward a summer of Winans hits. A solid document that shows the Winans family gift stretches well beyond church walls.

Mario Winans: Hurt No More (Bad Boy) ***

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