It’s perfectly acceptable for any well-schooled neoclassicist R&B singer to say these kinds of things on a record: “I want to rub your belly and watch you sleep/I want to rub your feet/I want to feed you fresh mangoes at four in the morning.” But only an R&B singer with Raheem DeVaughn’s combination of sincerity and skills can avoid making them sound like bunkum.
Spoken near the end of the pro-procreation song “Make a Baby,” those lines amount to the most overtly lovey-dovey moment on the strongly nookie-oriented A Place Called Loveland, the Maryland singer’s first proper LP since he departed Jive/Zomba and linked his own 368 Music Group label with Mass Appeal, a Boston-based company with ties to E1 Entertainment. In comparison with 2010’s The Love & War MasterPeace and 2011’s Freedom Fighter mixtape, two projects that strove to high-mindedly mingle politics and pleasure, this one is clearly just for the ladies.
There are some universally appealing moments, though, because DeVaughn is a singer’s singer—his heroes and contemporaries might be flashier, but he’s got all the chops. “In the Meantime,” in particular, might be the most potent performance he’s ever put on an album. It doesn’t have an obvious hook—it’s more of an exhortation with a melody—but DeVaughn’s pent-up delivery is riveting. The track’s producer, Jay Fenix, constructs a spacious groove from a slow bass pattern and a flitty, beguiling electric guitar motif. DeVaughn works it fully. From the very first “whoo,” it’s obvious that the track is a showstopper.
Elsewhere, traditional hooks matter more: DeVaughn inhabits a straight-up pop tune—the electro-tinged single “Love Connection”—as if his career could be completely built on such moves; his falsetto during the chorus of “Ridiculous” masterfully combines control and vulnerability; and his near-rapping on one of the few songs with a distinctly hip-hop beat, “Wrong Forever,” proves that he understands exactly why Frank Ocean has made such a splash.
Those tunes are all broadly about relationships, but DeVaughn dives into intimate moments sometimes, and when he does, no detail is spared: “You feel like pink crushed velvet/The sweetest thing I’ve ever felt before ...Baby I can’t help it/Can’t help it, I’m about to blow, lil’ mama,” he sighs during “Pink Crushed Velvet,” for which Mario Winans gets the chief songwriting credit. (DeVaughn is listed as a co-writer on that one, and many others.) “My sex was made to sweat out your weave, to make your MAC makeup smear and run,” he sings during “Greatest Love,” which is otherwise one of the few forgettable tracks on A Place Called Loveland.
For anybody who was particularly jazzed by DeVaughn’s pre-election, let’s-march-then-ball-all-night vibe, the album might seem a little lightweight. But it’s a logical career move, a way to get back to basics while adjusting to the freedom that his new deal is said to offer him. The squishier passages—which never really cross into X-rated territory, perhaps because DeVaughn has the mass market in mind—are simply reminders that R&B should serve every facet of a relationship, even the foot rubs.