A few years ago, Raheem DeVaughn, an R&B singer known for his savvy updating of Seventies soul and his liberal use of come-hither falsetto, came to a crucial realization.
“At the end of the day, I won’t be held accountable for the great music I made or how I performed on stage for the women that threw panties, right?” he explains. “I’m gonna be judged by what I did off the stage.”
The 43-year-old DeVaughn continues: “Being a public figure, it gives you access to pretty much whatever you want: the women you want to sample, the drugs you want to sample, whatever. The biggest challenge we all have is self-control. And what I’ve discovered about myself, my abnormal normalcy that I was living in, is [my challenge was] women. And that sounds great on the surface for someone who makes these great songs that women love, but it can create a whirlwind of problems. It’s like taking that kid who has a mouth full of cavities and loves sweets to the greatest trick-or-treat party of his life.” (DeVaughn once recorded a song about that exact situation, “Sweet Tooth,” in which he offered a wonderful assurance to a prospective lover, “Hey girl, don’t you panic: I got an A in physics.”)
After evaluating his life path, DeVaughn decided it was time to change course. “It’s cooler to be the guy that everybody can’t have versus being the guy that has all the ladies,” he says. “I had to literally strip myself down based on situations I experienced over the last three years and start to really ask myself tough, hard questions. I gotta hold myself accountable, and I deserve to be happy, and I deserve to be in a monogamous relationship.” Decade of a Love King, released on Friday, is his sixth album, but his first as a man newly in control of his impulses.
DeVaughn plays the part with conviction. While sitting in a restaurant in lower Manhattan, wearing a hunter green turtleneck, munching on shrimp, he speaks in the rousing manner of an ideal future life-coach. He won’t tell you his transition was easy. “I wept like a baby because I’m like, ‘Man, am I going out of my mind, am I depressed?'” DeVaughn says. “I ain’t been this upset since somebody died. But the reality is, somebody did die. Some people say, ‘You’re nobody ’til somebody kills you.’ I say, you’re somebody when you let the old you die.”
DeVaughn makes his new interests apparent right away on Decade of a Love King. Album opener “What It Feels Like,” overflows with promises of commitment — handing over the key to the condo, building her a throne, buying the ring, etc. “Don’t Come Easy” is a Hallmark-Card-ready thesis on the value of fidelity and sacrificing one’s own desires in favor of the couple’s. And DeVaughn describes “Wifey” as “a wedding song.” “I’m talking about monogamy,” he says, “and knowing your status.”
If the message is more couple-oriented — though there are several lusty songs that remain agnostic about attachment, because “you never want to come off corny” — DeVaughn’s medium is similar: Seventies and Eighties R&B. “Don’t Come Easy,” the lead single, borrows the irresistible simmer of the Isley Brothers’ “Voyage to Atlantis.” The follow-up will be “What It Feels Like,” which DeVaughn believes “has a steppers appeal” — steppin’, a Chicago-based dance tradition, often revolves around mid-tempo R&B grooves. During the outro of “Love Sex Passion,” DeVaughn employs a helium-like voice that is reminiscent of Prince’s Camille; the singer calls this character Cronkite. DeVaughn periodically adds touches of modern hip-hop, including three different rap features, which is more than he usually allows.
“Don’t Come Easy” reached more than 5 million listeners on the airwaves last week, making it DeVaughn’s biggest radio hit in ten years — listeners seem primed to receive his message. Still, he’s pushing to reach a wider audience. “Who wants to be the great artist or this iconic guy that nobody really knows about or [has] fallen under the radar?” DeVaughn asks. “I feel like my name at this point in my career deserves to be in conversations that it’s not always in, when you talk about the greats and those who are dope for my generation. I’m definitely coming for mine.”
But he acknowledges that there are systemic blockades in place that may hinder his attempts to insert himself into those conversations — black singers face a tough road in popular music. “Unfortunately, I think that sometimes the machine, at times I feel like there’s an undertone of segregation,” DeVaughn says. “At the end of the day, if you close your eyes, what’s the difference between Adele and Jill Scott?” The difference is that major labels spend millions to market the music of Adele, who is white, all over the country, but they rarely offer an equal level of support to singers like Scott, who is black. “Give [Jill] the same opportunity and the same look at the awards shows and vice versa,” says DeVaughn, who parted ways with a major label in 2010. “Wouldn’t it be cool to one day see it just all mixed up?”
But he has a plan in place anyway. “In my mind, I envision myself as the last man standing,” DeVaughn explains. “Put me on the track with my peers, ‘on your mark, get set, go:’ I’m just gonna keep running ’til everybody else run out of gas.”
“I don’t believe in luck; there’s opportunity and preparation,” he adds, returning to his life-coach precepts. And if those let you down? “I welcome failure, ’cause failure’s gonna make me great.”