“I’m always fighting to go further. Once you hit a plateau, it’s time to create another. I’m just getting started.”
He was once hailed as the “new voice of ghetto soul.” No more. Avant can now be hailed as the “new voice of modern soul.” The proof is in the listening as the singer prepares to release his sixth album – and first – on Verve Forecast: “The Letter” (Dec. 7).
“A letter is what you write to people to tell them what’s going on in your life,” says Avant. “This album is a letter from me to my fans about what’s going on in my life, what’s going through my head and my struggles as a man.”
Simmering with radio-friendly yet relatable introspections about romance/love, commitment and other realities of life, “The Letter” finds singer/songwriter Avant ready to ascend into music’s mainstream ranks – joining such predecessors as Maxwell, Marvin Gaye, and D’Angelo. Guiding Avant on that journey is a contingent of established and emerging producers from the R&B/hip-hop realm. Among them: The Pentagon, whose members Damon Thomas, Eric Dawkins and Antonio Dixon have collectively crafted hits for Mary J. Blige, Fantasia, Babyface and Usher; Mike City, whose credits include Usher, Jamie Foxx, Brandy and Carl Thomas; Marshall Leathers, formerly of the Architects, who has worked with India.Arie and Missy Elliott and Kajun, fresh off the top 5 R&B hit “Sex Room” by Ludacris featuring Trey Songz.
Avant, who also co-wrote and co-produced several “Letter” tracks, has revitalized his music without sacrificing his primary sound: “love ballads and mood records in the vein of Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, Luther Vandross and R. Kelly. “These guys,” says Avant, “gave me the drive to write and sing about the way relationships should go.”
Acknowledging the career-evolving fear factor artists face with each new album, Avant notes, “You don’t want to let your fans down, but you don’t want to come off like you’re trying to be someone else. At the same time, you want to stay relevant without sounding boring. For me, it’s about giving people great music. And I feel I’ve got that niche.”
At the forefront of accomplishing the singer’s current mission is the lead single “Kiss Goodbye.” Introduced by a driving piano riff, “Kiss Goodbye” settles into an atmospheric, mid-tempo groove that provides the melodic backdrop to the song’s cautious message: don’t ever take a romantic relationship for granted. “See you done got a lot of passes/Sick of waiting on you to change,” sings Avant. “You won’t know it, it’s a perfect disguise/She won’t show it, but lips don’t lie …/It’s OK if she said she was out with her girls and you know it’s a lie/But if she kissed him, that’s your kiss goodbye.” In a nutshell, the song doubles as the male equivalent to BeyoncÃ©’s own cautionary tale broken down on the hit single “Irreplaceable.”
“I’m out to raise caution to the fellas,” explains Avant about the inspiration behind “Kiss Goodbye,” produced by The Pentagon. “We’ve been used to talking our way out and through situations. But now we have to show more action.”
Avant draws on his inner Marvin Gaye as he skillfully works his way through “Hot 16,” a mood-setting number about an anticipated romantic liaison. “We’re about to make a masterpiece … something to remember,” he smoothly croons. The mood shifts on “Where Did We Go?,” a commentary on the day-to-day stresses that can cause the demise of a relationship. Avant isn’t afraid to bare his emotions as he laments his and his lady’s inability to simply reach out and talk in an increasingly digital world. The Pentagon, who produced “Hot 16? and “Where Did We Go?,” also helmed the beautiful anthem, “Walking on Water.” It’s destined to become a wedding classic by virtue of its quiet melody and revelatory lyrics: “I finally found someone/A girl I can love forever/Never thought it would happen for me/Feels like I’m walking on water; walking on water/ When I’m with you, impossible is easy to do.”
Among the other 11 tracks comprising “The Letter” is another R&B highlight, “Night Life.” Directed by producer Mike City, it features the feel-good morning-after line: “Waking up late with you on my mind.” Avant also taps into the hip-hop side of R&B on the languid “Body Police” and club jam “Had Enough,” both produced by Kajun, as well as the mid-tempo groove “That Dude,” produced by Marshall Leathers. In addition to its melodic, contemporary R&B framework and story-telling lyrics, “The Letter”‘s cohesiveness is tied together by Avant’s lilting tenor, which can shift effortlessly from romantic crooner to get-down party man.
Avant comes by those skills naturally. Born and raised in Cleveland, the church-honed singer attended Cleveland School of the Arts and later became the first act signed to Magic Johnson’s MCA-distributed label, Magic Johnson Music (MJM). Avant came to the NBA legend’s attention when the singer wrote and released the single “Separated.” The song, about a failed romantic relationship, began getting airplay on the top-rated Chicago radio station WGCI. The song was eventually included on Avant’s 2000 MJM debut album, “My Thoughts.” Reaching No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, “Separated” was followed by the top five hit “My First Love,” a cover of the 1983 RenÃ© & Angela R&B classic featuring KeKe Wyatt. Avant returned the favor on Wyatt’s 2001 album debut, “Soul Sista,” pairing up with her on the No. 4 hit “Nothing in This World.”
After scoring platinum with “My Thoughts,” Avant released two more platinum-certified albums, “Ecstasy” (2002) and “Private Room” (2003), and notched several more top 10 singles: “Makin’ Good Love,” “Read Your Mind.” Fourth album “Director” – distributed through Geffen and his final MJM project – was released in 2006 and featured the hit “4 Minutes.” Two years later, he segued to Capitol for a fifth, self-titled album that yielded the top 20 single “Break Ya Back.”
Having recorded with such diverse acts as Nicole Sherzinger and Lil Wayne, Avant isn’t afraid to stretch his vocal wings. He most recently partnered with contemporary jazz artist Brian Culbertson on the single “Skies Wide Open” from Culbertson’s new “XII” album. He was also among the select group of singers chosen to pay homage to R&B legend Frankie Beverly on “Silky Soul Music … An All-Star Tribute to Maze featuring Frankie Beverly.”
“The different textures of music excite me,” says Avant. “The dabbling in other genres inspires my writing.”
Another side of Avant is revealed on the new DVD release of playwright David E. Talbert’s “In the Nick of Tyme,” which also stars Morris Chesnut, Ellia English and Terry Dexter. Says Avant, “Bringing across another character was so much fun.”
However, it’s the singer/songwriter part of Avant that’s on center stage right now as Verve Forecast prepares to release “The Letter,” the next step in the artist’s ongoing evolution. “I have to say, I’m not where I want to be yet, and I won’t be complacent,” declares Avant. “I’m always fighting to go further. Once you hit a plateau, it’s time to create another. I’m just getting started.”