Intra *John Michael * Pop/R&B * May 5, 2017

When John Michael announced that his last project, Duality, was going to be his last, we were skeptical but understood where he was coming from.  The music industry can be a hard place for those who want to express their unique artistic vision without jumping on every trend and losing the core of what makes them who they are.  Stepping away from the microphone to be with his family and, perhaps, work more behind the scenes made perfect sense for someone who is still young but growing up and seeing more clearly what he really wants out of life.

But, when he stepped up again recently and said he had a new project on the way, we were happy but still skeptical.  Could someone who was willing to walk away a little over a year ago still have that fire required for making good music?  Is this really new music or is he just trying to get the most out of some old track?  Is he going to abandon the sound he had been cultivating for himself and just try to sound like Drake?

So many questions swirled.  But the only way to answer them was to press play and listen.

1. Culmination – From the moment you press play, that island rhythm and opening notes get you right away.  The island production, while similar to other tracks out there, has a nice groove to it and does get the mood across that we are having a going to dance a little and unwind our stress.  Michael gives good, consistent energy through the track with his vocals.  The opening adlib sets the tone for what he delivers throughout; a strong and steady performance that matches the laidback vibe of the track perfectly.  What we are really noticing is the title of the song is only said explicitly at the last bridge, but the entire thrust of the song lends itself to the theme of the moment they are sharing is a culmination of the work they have put into their relationship and lives together.  While it would have been nice to have something a little more distinct (production-wise) to start things off, this is still a good opener.

2. Iss Okay – When the production came in with the slow chords and jazz guitar, we would have sworn this was going to be babymaker.  Instead this is a grown-and-sexy track that has just the right groove to make you chair dance.  Michael’s vocals are great match for mid-tempo R&B beats like this.  His tone is like butter and lends to the atmosphere well.  The similarity between this and the first track are obvious in terms of tempo and overall theme, but this doesn’t feel like a repeat as much as the flipside of a coin.  The first song is about having made it and taking time to enjoy the fruits of your labor; this track is about taking time away from the grind and enjoying yourself with someone your care about.  We like the fact that he states explicitly that not being able to stunt on other people doesn’t mean you can’t have fun.  A solid track.

3. Thrill – We’ll say one thing, the intros of these tracks accomplish the goal of getting us interested in the rest of the song.  We are noting a consistent jazz-like undertone to all the tracks so far thank to the consistent instrumentation.  This sound mellow but not sleepy, which can sometimes be a hard distinction.  The lyrics on this are probably the most shaky so far in that DC’s rap verse contradicts itself about his motivations in a couple of places and some of the lines seem out of place thematically, but it’s not a track killer.  About being a thrill by being something different to the woman in question by being a reliable lover, this is an interesting direction to take things.

The downside of this track is that, unfortunately, it doesn’t really feel like it’s Michael’s.  Rapper DC does a great job of bringing energy and his flow is nice, but he ends up being the focal point of the song due to the fact that he has the only full verse.  Not that Michael sounds bad by any means; his adlibs here are the strongest of any song so far and he matches the smoothness of the beat with ease.  It just feel like he’s the feature due to him only having the choruses and a bridge.  The 40 seconds of the track, while still using a slowed and screwed version of the beat, feel like an interlude for the next track and less a part of this song.  It’s still a good song, but it just doesn’t feel like it belongs as a part of this project.

4. I Choose Me – The title of this one had us curious and couldn’t wait to hear what this was about.   We though that this was going to be about getting out of a bad relationship and choosing his happiness over her but, instead, what we get a good song about putting the truth about your priorities out there so there is no confusion in a “relationship.”  We really didn’t think the singer had it in him to pull of something like this given his default singing style, but he somehow manages to make it work with his tone softening the blow of his words.  Some might say that this is cold, but there is something to be said for being able to articulate the fact that love is not what you’re looking or working towards.  Michael is never cruel–just honest.  This is aided by the fact that the song runs less than three minutes, so this feels like letting things be known instead of harping on how not-the-one this woman is.  A standout track.

5. Nobody – The slight switch in style and slightly more up-tempo nature of the production is a welcomed change at this point.  This is still a mid-tempo track, but the darker production and more modern styling snap the listener out of what could have been becoming a rut in terms of overall sound.  This track feels like the flipside of the previous track and that dynamic is something that we liked about his last project, Duality.  This time Michael is telling the woman in question that she doesn’t need to seek out love from anyone but him.  The more modern styling of the melody and the lyrics are a nice touch and show a slightly different side of the singer than he’s shown thus far on the project without it feeling like a complete tonal shift.  The fadeout for this is a little long, but doesn’t destroy the song at all.  Worth a few listens.

6. Jukebox – This track, while still mid-tempo, gives just enough of a reprieve from the more mellow sounds of the album thanks to the rolling snare and the tempo of the sung melody.  Michael does a great job of using his natural tone to provide an adult feel to what could have easily come across as a more immature track in this set.  That long note over the end of the chorus is just a nice touch, flowing effortlessly with the production while still adding a little something extra that is noticeable when he doesn’t do it.  The lyrics are cohesive and still have that grown-up sound to them while not being inaccessible to a younger set.  Again, the more modern writing sensibility and melody is a nice switch from the bulk of the project so far and the overall sound serves to re-engage listeners who might have been looking for more bangers.  A solid track.

7. I Still Love You – One of the things that we have noticed over as this album has progressed is that the vocals are getting much more forceful in terms of emotional delivery and that might have something to due with the switch in tone of the production and overall subject matter.  This track definitely deserves the switch from mellow John Michael to determined John Michael as he begs his wife to stay with him and work out the problems of their marriage.  What we really like about this track is that it conveys the hard work that it can take to keep a relationship together while still giving hope that a couple can make it through the hard times.  The more pop&B production is a good fit for the track as it leaves out a lot of the earlier jazz sounds and makes things sound a lot more urgent (though not dire).  The lyrics give good imagery about the issues they face but also about what he wants to do fix them, something a lot of songs don’t do.  It’s well constructed and well performed all the way around; a standout track.

8. Wrap You Up – Despite the acoustic guitar being the main instrumentation of this track, it does feel like a nice companion to the one before it.  It feels like he managed to convince his wife that they are worth fighting for and he is telling her exactly what she means to him.  The building production has a nice sound to it, though the ethereal glass harmonica(?) that comes in about halfway though is somewhat distracting due to the volume of it.  Michael, though, does a great job with the vocals, offering nice adlibs to give a bit of a freeform feel to the song’s construction.  The high note he slides in gives just the right touch of “ooh baby” without him actually having to say it.  The entire time you feel like his is wrapping you up in the sound of his voice.  Worth a few listens.

9. My Momma – John Michael always does a good job on songs explicitly about his family and this time its dedicated to his mother.  The jazz undertones make their way back into the production, but the reprieve through the previous tracks makes this a nice switch back as we reach the climax of the album.  There is something very…gospel about the sound of this track.  It made us think of those moments when the choir sang at church and our own mothers would sit and clap along; it made us feel like we had come home.  The vocals are nice with the singer slipping back into a more mellow mode but still with a similar emotional thrust to the last few tracks.  The lyrics are a nice mixture of solid imagery, which makes this song apply to specifically his mother, and cliché, which makes it accessible to everyone else.  Just in time for mother’s day, this solid track probably served to make an excellent gift to a woman he loves and respects.

10. Close Door Affair – To say that we were not expecting this EDM-laced track at the close of the album is an understatement.  The intro had us convinced that this was going to be the more sexually-tinged babymaker that we had been expecting from some of the other tracks in this set, the drop made us sit up and take notice.  In an odd way it does join well with the theme of the first track in that it is about taking time to enjoy the one you’re with, though in more seductive terms (because it requires privacy).  The mellow vocals are interesting offset the more mechanical beat, but it’s a nice take on this kind of song.  The lyrics, especially towards the end, get a little repetitive, but that is somewhat to be expected from a track with an EDM base.  While the placement of this track is a little off, this a nice track and worth a few listens.

If there is one thing that we can say about John Michael is that he is consistent.  Consistent in improvement, yes, but just in overall quality of his projects.  There are still some things we want from him–mostly working with a wider assortment of producers and collaborating with songwriters with a similar vision but different implementation–but we are never disappointed in what he gives us.  We hear his connection to the material as clearly as ever and his determination to make good music shines through effortlessly, making for something that you enjoy listening to.  We have come to know him through his music and a steadfast adherence to his core makes him less of a gamble, the musical version of everything he offered his love on Thrill.  He’s willing to take a few risks to keep things interesting, but it’s never so much that we end up alienated and confused by the transition.  He’s solid but not wholly predictable; maybe not what you are wanting all the time, but someone you know you can run back to when the world gets a little crazy to make you feel centered.

While we want him to branch out a little more, we are still here for what he gives and are always happy to hear him when he comes around.

Rating: 3.5