ither Jaheim Hoagland is consistent to a fault, or he's crafted his album titles to give that impression. 2001's Ghetto Love, 2002's Still Ghetto, and the new Ghetto Classics work their theme as monomanaically as Trick Daddy's five album run of Thug-related titles. But maybe it's the "classics" part that's more key to Jaheim's appeal, because despite modernized hip-hop production touches, his music is all big-hearted, old school soul that owes more than a small debt to Marvin Gaye. He's also a far more skilled disciple of Luther Vandross than, say, Jamie Foxx.
Of course, Jaheim has to reaffirm his ghetto aesthetic on tracks like "I Ain't Never" with references to cooking bricks in the kitchen and standin' on the corner pitchin'. But then, he's one of the few R&B; singers today who can pull off such claims convincingly, and sounds right at home when collaborating with the Diplomats or D-Block. In fact, in an R&B; climate where sometimes entire albums can be littered with cameos by rappers, Jaheim limits Ghetto Classics to one appearance apiece from Lox members Styles P. and Jadakiss, like he's keeping it all in the family and not just collaborating with rappers for the hell of it.
DJ Kay Gee, the non-rapping third member of Naughty by Nature, has made a graceful transition from the soulful bangers that drove early 90's pop rap to the similar production styles that dominate contemporary R&B.; And he's responsible for four of the best tracks on Ghetto Classics, including the new single "The Chosen One," which continues the hit parade of Willie Hutch samples on urban radio that was jumpstarted by the Three 6 Mafia. Elsewhere, hip-hop producers like Scott Storch and Bink! from Roc-A-Fella conform to Jaheim's aesthetic with lush, melodic backdrops that actually suit a singer better than a rapper.
Ghetto Classics might not contain a breakout single as inspired as "Fabulous," which crept into the Top 40 in 2003, but the lack of obvious hits doesn't hurt the listening experience. At 43 minutes, it's Jaheim's shortest album. But it's a smooth, cohesive ride that never lapses into boredom like, say, Ne-Yo's recent debut In My Own Words. And when Ghetto Classics does divert from Jaheim's usual style, it's just once, and results in perhaps the best song on the album.
Propelled by a stuttery keyboard riff and club-ready drums, "Like a DJ" stands out like a sore thumb from the rest of the album's pillowy mid-tempo arrangements. But the upbeat dance track is propelled by a perfectly realized lyric paralleling a romantic relationship with a hit record's journey up and down the charts, complete with clever nods to the Vandross sample from Twista's "Slow Jamz." Jaheim laments falling "from top ten, to not even bein' in your countdown," until his lover goes digging in the crates and plays him again. It's a sly metaphor that might have a special resonance for, say, a singer who hasn't released an album in four years and might worry that his fans have moved on. But it's clear that the fanbase Jaheim built with his first two albums hasn't forgotten him, because Ghetto Classics became his first #1 album, despite no hit single and minimal promotion. The narrator of "Like a DJ" might fret about being passed over for a newer sound, but it looks like Jaheim shouldn't have to worry about that.