At South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, last week, Justin Timberlake diverted a huge amount of attention from the kind of up-and-coming acts the music fest was founded to spotlight. But if the pop superstar's intimate club gig Saturday night prevented someone from seeing the latest Animal Collective clone, well, I'm OK with that. The latest Animal Collective clone probably isn't any good.
More troubling is the way Timberlake's album "The 20/20 Experience," which I like very much, is overshadowing another adventurous soul record released Tuesday: "More Than Words" by Brian McKnight, the R&B veteran who beyond his own work has written and produced for Timberlake, in both his solo career and during Timberlake's days with 'N Sync, as well as other artists including Alicia Keys and Boyz II Men.
The imbalance in acclaim is as thorough as it is inevitable. Though he's responsible for a number of R&B standards ("Anytime," "Back at One") and has hosted his own radio and television shows, McKnight isn't a multi-platform media dynamo irresistible to corporations such as Target and Budweiser. And unlike "The 20/20 Experience," "More Than Words" doesn't herald a long-awaited return to music; McKnight's last album, "Just Me," came out in 2011. So there's no story here, no built-in narrative ready for hyping by the celebrity-industrial complex.
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No story, that is, beyond this: "More Than Words" is great. Really great. So great that unless D'Angelo gets around to completing his long-awaited return to music, it might end up the best R&B album of the year. (That tendency toward hype -- it's tough to overcome.)
As it happens, the record delivers many of the same pleasures that Timberlake's does. Producing himself, McKnight moves freely through textures and eras, riding a sleek synth pulse in "4th of July," boosting a bluesy guitar lick for the title track and pulling off an uncanny approximation of Steely Dan's "Deacon Blues" in "Get U 2 Stay." In "Letsomebodyloveu," his singing recalls the exasperated croon of onetime Steely Dan vocalist Michael McDonald.
No less studio adept than Timberlake's producing partner Timbaland, McKnight flexes his know-how with tart juxtapositions, as in the Middle Eastern-accented "Slow" and "Don't Stop," which conjoins funk-style slap bass with gauzy keyboards out of the late-'90s British dance music known as 2-step. And the songs share a structural complexity with those on "The 20/20 Experience," offering up unexpected chord changes and winding instrumental detours. It's the sound of a master on the job.
Yet where Timberlake uses that expansive quality to elevate the drama in his music -- to give it a grandeur suited (and tied) to his pop-star status -- McKnight keeps his songs modest, almost self-effacing in their outlook. Over the bouncy, Hall & Oates-ish groove in "She Doesn't Know," he describes his totally implementable plan to woo a woman who "works in the cubicle next to me."
And although "Made for Love" opens with McKnight rolling down Sunset Boulevard in his Alfa Romeo, he and a lady friend are soon taking "a left on La Cienega / Toward the Beverly Center" in search of a place to eat: "I suggested Wokcano," he sings, referring to the Asian-fusion spot on West 3rd Street, "You said that was just perfect." The small-scale specifics are deeply endearing, as they are in "Get U 2 Stay," where McKnight describes himself not as a sex god or a creative genius but as a "golfball-hitting machine."
Timberlake likes golf too -- he spent a fair amount of time hitting balls during his lengthy break from music. With him, though, you get the sense that the sport is played to be won; it's just another field to dominate. McKnight on the overlooked "More Than Words" simply feels like a lover of the game, a champion minus his title.
"More Than Words"
Follow Mikael Wood on Twitter: @mikaelwood