Power of observation aids artist's songwriting
By ALAN SCULLEY
For the Call
Since he arrived on the scene in 2000 with "Aijuswanaseing," a million-selling CD that produced a Grammy-nominated hit single, "Love," Musiq has drawn comparisons to such masters of soul and R&B as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Al Green.
Musiq — whose offstage name is Taalib Johnson — is doing his best not to get caught up in any competitions with the soul masters of the past.
"To be honest, I don't try to live up to anybody as far as that's concerned," said the singer, who until recently had gone under the stage name Musiq Soulchild.
"Don't get me wrong," Musiq said. "I've been very inspired by those people, particularly those people moreover than some others. And I've been influenced by them also. But I don't try to live up to them because they are who they are. They were who they were. And it doesn't make any sense to try to be them because I will never be able to be them. I just try to, it's like taking the baton and keeping it moving, just keeping it moving."
If Musiq's musical output so far is any indication, he has a good chance to make the kind of lasting impact his musical heroes made on the music scene.
Having made a major splash with "Aijuswanaseing" — pronounced "I Just Wanna Sing" — Musiq has solidified his success with his second CD, "Juslisen" — translates to "Just Listen" in Musiq spelling. That CD debuted at No 1 on Billboard magazine's album chart and its latest single, "Don't Change," also went top 15 on Billboard magazine's R&B/Hip-Hop chart.
Considering the music on "Juslisen," it's not hard to understand the success Musiq, 25, is having.
Tracks like "Stoplayin," "Newness," and "Half Crazy" — the CD's popular lead single — solidify Musiq's ability to bring believable emotion to richly melodic, ro-mantic ballads that groove smartly behind beats that borrow from modern hip hop.
Meanwhile funky uptempo tunes "Religious," "Caught Up" and "Real Love" give the CD plenty of variety.
Musiq's status as one of the leading men of the new soul movement — alongside the likes of Usher, D'Angelo and Brian McKnight — stands as a stark reversal of fortune for an artist who faced some serious struggles on his way to adulthood.
Raised in a strict Muslim household in Philadelphia, Musiq rebelled against his parents, and moved out of the house at age 16. He began to work his way into the local music scene by beatboxing for MCs in the area and eventually performing at local clubs like the Five Spot and Wilhelmina's.
Beatboxing and the occasional gig might have helped Musiq polish his vocal skills, but it didn't pay any bills.
Before long, he was essentially homeless, getting into drinking and smoking pot, while a poor diet only worsened his health. In November 1998, he had an anxiety attack that landed him in the hospital and forced him to start following a healthier regimen.
"I had a rebellious streak, and I wanted to do things all by myself," Musiq said, looking back on that period.
"But I started to realize that [stuff] was really hard, really hard," he continued. "It leads you down certain roads that I'm not so proud of. But that was my life. And that's what I had to go through.
"That's what God took me through in order to learn my lessons, because I was pretty hard at it."
Not long after hitting a low point living on the streets, Musiq got a big break.
One day a local producer, Jerome Hipps, invited Musiq to sing backing vocals at a recording session. While at the studio that day, Musiq met an aspiring songwriter, Carvin Haggins. The two struck up a quick rapport and began writing a song that very day. Soon they had recruited a third collaborator, Ivan "Orthodox" Barious, to help craft instrumental tracks. Those early tracks landed Musiq his record deal with Def Jam/Def Soul.
With both the "Aijuswanaseing" and "Juslisen" CDs, Musiq has established himself as an artist who not only has a flair for soul melody, but for writing romantic ballads that connect well with female fans.
His ability to spin a vivid story has caused many fans to wonder how many of his lyrics are based on experience. Musiq maintained that his greatest talent in ro-mance and music — at least to this point — is his powers of observation.
"I've never been in a full, big, substantial long relationship, I think due to the fact that I've been scared away by other people's relationships," he said.
"I've been around people who have been in relationships from start to finish over and over and over. I can't even count how many times. People had a tendency to come to me, telling me their problems, like I knew what I was talking about.
"But I'm the kind of person that would just sit back and observe it and just add two and two, unbiasedly put it together, not taking sides, just telling what I see," he continued.
"Take it how you want it, either you like it or you don't. This is what I see. And I just applied that to my songwriting."
Musiq headlines a June 13 show at the pageant, 6161 Delmar Blvd. Tickets for the 8 p.m. show, which also features Vivian Green, cost $35 and $32.50.