It's a Bird, It's a Plane...
Last year Brian McKnight pulled off an amazing feat: He released an album that didn't have one track produced by the Neptunes.
While the Virginia boys' patented ghetto-sleazy beats thumped on the albums of everyone from Britney Spears to P. Diddy to Alana Davis, McKnight's Superhero is a Neptunes-free zone -- and it's something he's kinda proud of. "Ninety percent of the records I do, I do myself," explains McKnight. "I don't feel the need to go the route that everybody else goes. I know those guys, and I've worked with them on other things, but I'm not really a bandwagon jumper. I tend to think that my songs are taken seriously because they don't necessarily sound like everything else."
But the 32-year-old, Buffalo-born singer-songwriter doesn't want you take Superhero's songs too seriously, or at least too literally. The opening track, "When You Wanna Come," which gives a shout-out to Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Relax," seemingly has the sensitive soul man getting his Jake Steed on ("Pullin' on your hair / Keep it right there"). But if you think this is the beginning of a freakier, sneakier Brian McKnight, don't; he's just joshing. "People automatically assume that music is real life, and it isn't," says the married-with-children McKnight. "Sometimes I don't really take these things that seriously. When it comes to 'When You Wanna Come,' I was listening to talk radio, and there was a subject on there and I got inspired by it. So it's just me being funny about that particular situation where a lot of guys think that they're doing what they're supposed to be doing with their women and they're not. It's just a reminder to them of what they need to do. So it's not really about what you think. Sometimes you have to open up your mind and try to think that maybe the author had something else in mind besides just what you're listening to."
Taking the best of the 35 songs he wrote during a recent 12-month tour, Superhero ("a diary," as McKnight calls it) finds McKnight trying not to live up to the pop-prince mantle people prematurely draped him with. Sure, his first single, "Love of My Life," is signature McKnight, a majestically schmaltzy number that may have Diane Warren kicking herself for not thinking of it first. But McKnight claims it was inspired by Prince's "Scandalous" and that he often looks to R&B masters past and present. Says McKnight: "I try to think about if Marvin [Gaye] was singing a song right now, what would it sound like as well."
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But like "When You Wanna Come," other tunes on Superhero catch McKnight in the most unusual of situations. The G-funk "Don't Know Where to Start" finds him getting pimpalicious with Nate Dogg. On the bonus track, "Groovin' Tonight," McKnight provides melodious hooks for Nelly and his rap crew, the St. Lunatics. Even the title track, where he officially reveals his obsession with Superman, is a heady rock number with enough references to the Man of Steel to make Jerry Seinfeld proud.
But the thing McKnight wants people to recognize most about Superhero is that the title is not a reference to himself, nor is it his attempt to jump on the post- September 11 working-class-hero bandwagon. The album was released two weeks before the disaster, so McKnight's intentions (mentioned in the liner notes) of using this album to pay tribute to the nobility and grace of everyday men and women -- firefighters, parents, teachers -- were already set way before supporting your local firehouse was the in thing to do.
"It really wasn't about who I think I am," he says. "It's really about who I really aspire to be, to really make a difference in somebody's life. I've been able to do that with the music that I've written. And at the same time, I was thinking about those people that we take for granted. Obviously, since September 11, there are a lot of people now that we look at differently, because of what they do. And because it came out first, I didn't try to capitalize on the catastrophe."
Yet the hauntingly prophetic but still uplifting final tracks "When Will I See You Again" and "For You" give one the eerie feeling that somehow McKnight saw it coming. McKnight doesn't want people to get the wrong idea about his songs. "I think [people] were trying to turn me into some sort of soothsayer," he says with a laugh. "I really tried to stay away from it, because I would never have wanted to think that something like this could ever happen, especially not in America. And I think that was that kind of arrogance that caused it to come true. And I think that, now, we look at everything differently -- not just in music, but with people in general."
The world may have changed, but McKnight's racking up of accolades has not -- Superhero has already garnered five Grammy nominations. But it's knowing that the right people are listening to and appreciating his album that McKnight needs now. "These are the songs that are the diary of the last year and a half of my life," he says. "While at the same time, in my mind and in my heart, these people are important to me -- as they should be to you."
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