The R&B veteran Kem hasn’t released a new album since 2014: He took time away to get married, have two kids, change management, and chase a life of domesticity rarely conducive to the rigors of being a working musician. After returning from that sort of hiatus, most singers would try to keep risks to a minimum. But “Not Before You” arrives as a pleasant jolt on Kem’s latest album, Love Always Wins — a traditional ballad enlivened by unexpected, enticing choices.
The song starts with a tender acoustic guitar riff, the stuff of Tony Rich or Donell Jones, and Kem sings with casual bite. The initial guitar is soon joined by a second, but this one is a pedal steel — which rarely, if ever, appears in mainstream R&B — playing bendy, elegiac lines. There’s thunk-snap rhythm programming for the kids, and a ghost of a New Orleans-parade drum pattern dancing somewhere behind it, barely perceptible, a party the listener can’t reach.
“It’s a typical Kem song as far as content, but it’s atypical as far as the production,” the 51-year-old singer explains.
Before his break, Kem was an “Adult R&B” mainstay, a slyly expressive singer with a slicing, airy voice and catalog full of tender love songs. His kindred spirits are singers from the late Seventies — especially the Isley Brothers, but also the Frankie Beverly of “Feel That You’re Feelin,'” the Tyrone Davis of “Ain’t Nothing I Can Do,” and the Curtis Mayfield of “Tripping Out.”
Like Beverly before him, Kem carved out a robust career without ever being permitted to reach a “pop” audience. His first three albums are all certified gold or platinum; he has a dozen Top Ten R&B radio hits. “Kem used to sell 200,000 or 300,000 copies, sell Gold [500,000 copies] even when the temperature in the industry was really cold [for R&B],” says Derek “DOA” Allen, a former touring bassist for Janet Jackson and Lionel Richie who played all over Love Always Wins and co-produced nearly every song. Singers like Kem remain vital, even though, as album sales vanish in the streaming era, they are increasingly dependent on touring to stay afloat.
On past albums, Kem has often composed alone and cut tracks in the studio with his band, but for Love Always Wins, the singer’s approach changed. Allen would build what he calls “a framework” around Kem’s keyboard-and-voice demos; then the two men would solicit outside contributions — especially pricking, filigreed guitar from Michael “Nomad” Ripoll and string arrangements from Paul Riser, who worked on a slew of classic Motown records in the late Sixties and early seventies — as needed.
In an era when musicians routinely throw out an album (or more) a year, Kem is meticulous. “There’s nobody harder on Kem than Kem,” Allen explains. “His genius says, ‘there’s something in my head, and I’m trying to pick this lock. I’m not sure how to do it yet, but once I do, it’s going to be phenomenal.’ It took me about a year to figure that part of him out.” The two men worked together for another two-and-a-half years.
Though Kem took a different approach while building Love Always Wins, in truth, the end product is not that much of a departure from his previous releases, grounded in the Seventies and Eighties R&B canon. The end of the horn progression in “Lie to Me” — originally written by the singer Anthony Hamilton along with the ace producers Salaam Remi and James Poyser — evokes parts of the S.O.S. Band’s “Tell Me If You Still Care,” while Allen likens “Praise” to the undeniable grooves of Patrice Rushen and Atlantic Starr. Kem’s wordless vocals at the opening of “Live Out Your Love” are as close to Marvin Gaye as you can feasibly get in 2020, and his delivery on “Love” has unmistakable echoes of Mayfield.
“Lonely” is the strongest of the neo-Quiet-Storm cuts, a slinky, downtempo dance track that makes room for a pointillist piano solo and offers a master-class in harmonies, with Kem multiplying and layering his own voice on the chorus to killer effect. “Depending on how many parts there are to the harmonies, probably three, you’re talking about doing four layers of each part,” the singer says. “It’s arduous. But I love being able to do background when I can.”
Even as the album displays traditional credentials, whenever possible, Allen worked to “add a little knock, dirty those tracks up a bit.” “Production-wise, we can put a little something on it without scaring [Kem’s] old audience,” the veteran explains, “and maybe gain a new audience in the process.”
Which brings us back to “Not Before You,” the audacious blend that opens the album, skipping between genres, staying beat-less for nearly 80 seconds, daring the listener to commit to something new. “We hold the drums back ’til the end — if they came in any sooner, there’s nowhere else to go,” Kem says. “It’s a great way for the song to peak.”
“It’s not quite R&B; it’s not quite country,” the singer adds. But it’s still Kem.