A homegrown labor of love that's made to woo

Eric Benet, in Washington on Saturday, is one of R&B's smooth operators, and his recent album is swoon-worthy

December 25, 2008|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

Eric Benet has no problem with being pegged as an R&B smoothie, the guy whose songs are all about romance.

"I think that distinction can be broad," says the singer-songwriter, who headlines Washington's DAR Constitution Hall with Robin Thicke on Saturday night. "It gives you a big arena to mess around with. When I think of the great romantic singers - Luther Vandross, the Marvins, the Smokey Robinsons - romantic is a pretty small container to put them in when you think about all that they've done."

He pauses, then adds, "Not that I'm comparing myself to them."

Since releasing True to Myself, his well-received 1996 debut, Benet has cultivated a fervent fan base made up mostly of women. On Love & Life, his fourth and most recent release, the handsome singer returns to gentlemanly songs of seduction. It's the follow up to 2005's Hurricane, a weepy and uneven chronicle of his emotional state after his messy divorce from Oscar winner Halle Berry.

"This record I feel in a lot of ways is getting back to me, my core," says Benet, who spoke by phone this week from Toronto. "Hurricane was one of those records I needed to get out of me. It was like a therapy process. I wasn't thinking, 'Let me make these radio hits.' "

That was clearly his objective, because Hurricane, the belated follow-up to his best album, 1999's gold-seller A Day in the Life, spawned no hits. The album's reception was especially tepid after stories of Benet's chronic cheating during his four-year marriage to Berry made the tabloids. She filed for divorce. He went on Primetime Live and cried about his sex addiction. In the past three years, the Los Angeles-based artist has concentrated on his music and raising his 17-year-old daughter, India.

"When I started making Love & Life, all the lessons I needed to learn personally and creatively had happened," Benet says. "I feel I've matured. That maturity translated to happiness. I feel in tune with the universe and God."

But lyrically, the new album mostly centers on carnal pleasures. Wooing his lady into the boudoir with romantic cliches ("I never knew love could feel this way") is Benet's main objective here. His come-ons may be toothless, but they're delivered with conviction. Vocally, Benet sounds more inspired on Love & Life than he did on his previous albums.

"I feel like I'm getting closer and closer to getting out of the way," he says. "What I mean by that is that I'm not thinking too much about how this sounds or how that should sound. You let the creative energy flow and get the hell out of the way. The creative inhibitions - I'm learning to just flow."

To achieve this musical fluidity, Benet, 42, returned to his hometown of Milwaukee.

"I wanted this record to be me going back to the roots of R&B," he says, "so it was apropos to get back to my roots. It added to that feel-goodness of the record. I would hang out at the lakefront, where I used to take my girlfriend and where we'd do more than just hang out. That brought back a lot of memories, and I'd go back and write songs. I also hung out with my mom, my cousins, my sister - laughed a lot. It helped me to be in this environment of feeling great."

The arrangements throughout Love & Life return to the ultra-smooth but spare musical template Benet established for himself on True to Myself and A Day in the Life. He diverted on Hurricane, which was decidedly lush with heavy adult-contemporary influences.

On the new CD, Benet worked closely with a friend, producer Demonte Posey, to craft the sleek and slinky tracks. Most are programmed with warm overlays of live instrumentation, including bright horns, strings and snaking bass lines.

"I didn't really do anything that different," Benet says. "I just feel like I'm better at my game. I think I've gotten fairly talented at injecting emotion into songs. When people listen to my songs, one of the responses that comes back is, 'Man, this record feels so good.' That's the hugest compliment for me. ... I feel this positive energy now, and I want the audience to feel that, too."

online

To hear clips from Love & Life, go to baltimoresun.com/listeningpost

if you go

See Eric Benet with Robin Thicke 8 p.m. Saturday at DAR Constitution Hall, 18th and D streets northwest, Washington. Tickets are $70 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-7328 or going to ticketmaster.com

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