Gospel according to the new Rich

America's latest R&B million-seller is a wordsmith.
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Much African-American music in the genus R&B is at present concerned with riding a rhythm to communicate lyrics on the subjects of humpin', bumpin', the size of a man's Uzi, and the pleasure he can give or get. So it's a shock to discover an R&B album by the Tony Rich Project with the title Words.

Good record, too. Not slim-volume poesy, as its title suggests, but a subtle, hooky dissection of the male-female emotional pas de deux, of social and family structures and of the importance of responsibility and loyalty. And, of course, the record sounds as neat as you'd expect from the latest graduate of the LaFace label, the Atlanta-based organisation of the formerly inseparable production team of Babyface and LA Reid. (Rich has already made a small bundle writing for Boyz II Men and Johnny Gill, among others.)

Words is almost entirely mid-paced in tempo, the feel is Prince pop (highlighting once more the influence the maligned one has had on pop-soul in the past 15 years) and although one waits for a clattering dance track to spoil the mood, it never comes. The album has sold a million in the US, as has its lead-off single "Nobody Knows", currently in the UK Top 20.

Traditionally, assessments of African-American music have tended to accentuate the rhythmic elements of the music at the expense of its lyrical content. In the late Sixties, however, R&B-based singers and writers reacted to rock's attempts at engaging a broader and more "intellectual" scope of subject matter and did likewise, a movement crystallised in the early Seventies albums of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder at Motown and by producer/writers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff at Philadelphia lnternational. Disco put a stop to all that and also established the pre-eminence of producer over singer, while funk, for which God and James Brown be praised, was never quite able to subjugate the rhythm long enough to sustain its sense of social or political purpose, with a few exceptions.

To the popular pantheon of promising new R&B singers, like R Kelly and D'Angelo, we can now add Antonio Richards, or the Tony Rich Project, Detroit-born and raised but now happily removed to Atlanta. "I like the pace," he says of his new home. "I can write because it's very quiet, slow and gentle. At night, Detroit moves too fast. It's too tempting, so I stayed in the house, focused on music, aaaall night."

Detroit gave him singing practice in a big gospel choir and although his voice does not have the purity, gravelly power or gripping tension of the great tenors of the Fifties and Sixties, there is clearly church in it. "In gospel, everything you sang was very meaningful. So I set out to write things that meant a lot to myself. Hopefully, it can translate to people."

Rich left school at 17 to start doing just that, but almost immediately, his father, who had been a pianist and songwriter, died at the age of 41. Rich's career stalled before it started. "It kinda set me back," he says, "but it was the one thing that made him real proud and so happy, to see me and my brothers playing music and singing." He would have been prouder still had he heard "Ghost", a touching reminiscence and spiritual confirmation of the presence of his dead father.

'Words' is released on Monday on Arista. The Tony Rich Project plays the Clapham Grand, London SW4 on Thursday (0171-344 0044)