Musiq Soulchild is one of those artists who should be bigger than he is. A talented singer/songwriter, he entered the neo-soul scene with his 2000 debut Aijuswanaseing. Its lead single "Just Friends (Sunny)" gained urban radio airplay and exposure via BET and VH1, but Musiq never quite crossed over to achieve mainstream success. Audiences are all the worse for it, as his clear voice graces some first-class retro soul that features modern touches such as hip hop beats. A perfect example is "Betterman," a stellar track from his underrated 2007 album Luvanmusiq. This should-have-been-hit combines heavy beats with mature lyricism to create a memorable tune.
Born in Philadelphia, Musiq (born Taalib Johnson) grew up listening to the 70s soul his father adored. After performing in local clubs, he finally earned the attention of Def Jam Records. Staying true to his roots, Musiq recorded much of his debut at Philadelphia's Touch of Jazz Studios. Upon its release, AllMusic's Kerry L. Smith praised Aijuswanaseing as a showcase for "Soulchild's vocal talent and versatility as he crisscrosses the analogous styles of R&B, soul, and rap." Smith predicted that Musiq would make an "indelible mark on the R&B landscape," and the singer tried to do just that with his subsequent releases.
His next effort, 2002's Juslisen (yes, he seems to have an aversion to grammar and punctuation) virtually topped the previous release in depth and sound. The single "Halfcrazy" allowed him to demonstrate his impressive vocal range without neglecting the meaning of the lyrics. Musiq's tale of a rocky relationship emerging out of friendship clearly struck a chord with listeners, as it reached number two on the R&B singles chart and cracked the top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. Four albums later, he has not significantly dented the pop charts, although his singles still rank highly on the R&B charts.
For Luvanmusiq, Musiq recruited top songwriters and producers to craft quality material. Raphel Saadiq and Ne-Yo penned tracks for the collection, and the Saadiq-Musiq collaboration "Betterman" is a highlight. Kicking off with a hip hop-tinged beat, Musiq's voice rises above the drums and deep bass, never oversinging the words. "I got a real good woman now / Someone between a lover and a friend," he croons, clearly moving away from the angst of "Halfcrazy." Musiq's phrasing works well in the next lines: "Cause I thought I knew what love was / But it wasn't until she came and changed my life." The way he modulates his voice between the words "love was / but it wasn't" works well in stressing the song's theme: maturity in love.
The chorus sticks in the mind, again proving that "Betterman" should have been a hit:
All the love in this world
I want to give to this girl
Because she makes me wanna be a better man
And all the games I've played are in the past
Because I know this one's gonna last
It's crazy how she makes me wanna be a better man
The bridge features swirling synthesizers as Musiq repeats the title phrase, an apt end to a very catchy track.
Musiq Soulchild may not have numerous top ten hits, but his mixture of classic soul with hip hop is a hidden gem in contemporary R&B. Start with "Betterman" and Luvanmusiq, and then delve further into his already impressive catalog.