There’s a typical narrative attached to acrobatic vocalists: Enthusiasm for singing as youngsters, a moment when they reveal their precocity to the world, and then the establishment of irrepressible upward momentum.
This was not quite the path taken by the young R&B singer Marco McKinnis when he was growing up in Virginia. “Initially I started rapping because I was too shy to try singing,” he says. “I kept my singing secret from my family. My parents didn’t know.”
Some secrets are too good to keep quiet forever. When McKinnis started to put music on SoundCloud, “people were like, we need you to keep uploading.” Partially as a result of that encouragement, he is now a handful of singles and an EP into a major-label singing career for Republic Records. Today he releases “Deep,” a probing soft-soul ballad that summons an impressive lineage. During the Nineties, a series of R&B hitmakers — Keith Sweat, Dru Hill and Ginuwine — all released different songs asking the same blunt, better-answer-this-right question: “How deep is your love?” In “Deep,” McKinnis stumbles on the same line of inquiry.
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“‘Deep’ is about a relationship between an older woman and a young man that accidentally falls for her,” McKinnis explains. “It ain’t easy dealing with somebody older than you. They’ve experienced things you haven’t. No matter if y’all are together or just doing your thing, the idea is growing through life, rather than going through life.”
“Deep” is full of sly melodic bravado; at a time when tunefulness is often a secondary consideration, McKinnis still enjoys hitting notes for notes’ sake. He taught himself to sing by “just listening to songs and trying to imitate — Lloyd, Anthony Hamilton, Ne-Yo, gospel.”
Maybe that’s partly why he gets so much enjoyment from adding layers and counter-melodies to his tracks. “I used to OD on harmonies,” McKinnis says. “Picking notes to fit in the same pocket that sound different but come together in a little sandwich — that just made me feel different. I pick notes that aren’t on key and tuck them under, lower the volume, to make everything sound more full.”
“Deep” will appear on the singer’s second EP, E-Merse, June 14. Expect more harmonies.