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Billy Cook

Certified Platinum (Def Souf)

Perhaps the biggest misstep the folks at Def Souf made in hyping up Billy Cook is not putting his charismatic mug on the cover of his debut album. In its place is a futuristic hommage to the Ernie Barnes-painted cover for Marvin Gaye's I Want You (Cook co-dedicates Platinum to the late soul singer), but by the time that soon-to-be classic was released in 1976, Gaye was one of the most renowned voices in popular music. He didn't needto peddle his image. By contrast, people don't know who the hell Billy Cook is. Is he a singer? Is he a rapper? Is he black? Is he white? And most importantly, does he blow? Oh, yes, he does blow -- but not in the way you're thinking.

Cook, with the help of various writers and producers, spends 12 tracks (and one dance remix) proving just how much he can't whoop it up on the mike. Fortunately he can whoop it up in other ways, which is a relief -- and a little surprising, considering this city isn't known for breeding male R&B singers. Cook manages to pull off a feisty, church-bred vocal flow that's more reminiscent of former Jodeci front man Cedric "K-Ci" Hailey than Marvin Gaye.

The album seems to be divided into two parts: The first half has Cook being as playalicious as he possibly can, giving the brothas something to roll to and learn from while they're flossing in their rides. "I'm just a playa playas wannabe / Living the lavish life / Flashing diamond rings," he sings on "Certified Playa." With some lackadaisical Gulf Coast-style beats bumping in the background, Cook sets out to put it on the ladies and school the fellas on tracks like "Genie" and "Supastar." He even reaches out to the Hispanic honeys with the Latin-flavored "Forever Girl."

The playas aren't gonna enjoy the second part much. It has Cook pulling out the keyboard, playing some cascading chords and going into sensitive, hopelessly romantic Brian McKnight territory. "Cafe Love" is the best of this section, a beautifully light, exotic counterpart to his aforementioned salsa-tinged "Forever Girl." The brothas may think he sounds whipped, but when the ladies hear Cook carrying on about his significant other on "My Song to You," they're gonna certify him Grade A choice, not platinum.

Cook's balancing act on Platinum -- part card-carrying pimp, part sensitive Taye Diggs kind of brotha -- has its share of pleasant ready-for-heavy-rotation moments. But why did Cook have to screw up a good thing and throw in his rendition of Gaye's "Distant Lover"? We all know Cook honors the man, but what made him think he had what it takes to cover a Marvin Gaye song? Come on, brotha, you good, but you ain't that good.

 
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