The R&B of the past decade has had plenty of rhythm — but where’s the blues? Or, more specifically, where’s the sweaty emotion amid the drum machines and synthesizers of genres like new jack swing? Tony Rich apparently feels the same way. Like fellow one-man band D’Angelo, Rich, a Detroit-born singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist, is on a mission: to put a few old-fashioned wrinkles on the face of today’s over-sleek R&B. Recording under the nom de studio the Tony Rich Project, he has already gone top 10 with ”Nobody Knows,” a pouty I’m-lonesome ballad in which Rich glides from a tear-in-the-throat plea to a gospel-influenced growl. Imagine Boyz II Men as One Man, and with spine to boot.
The rest of Rich’s debut album, WORDS, is even better. Unlike D’Angelo, he remains steeped in electronics — his music pulsates rather than swings. But Rich crafts sharp and elegant songs, not just beats. From the sinewy ”Grass Is Green,” about a callous mugger, to the chamomile-tea warmth of ”Like a Woman,” the emphasis is so much on the melodies that even when he’s bathing the songs in his own multitracked harmonies, the results remain intimate. Rich (previously known for writing songs for Boyz II Men and Pebbles) is a protègé of producer L.A. Reid, and it’s ironic that on the sensual ”Missin’ You,” Rich gives Reid’s ex-creative partner, current mellow-soul kingpin Babyface, a run for his money. At this rate, he may be giving plenty of other R&B pros a scare too. A