e’s the former lead singer of a wildly successful boy band who impressed some with his solo debut (as always, the little girls understood), but he’s really stepped up his game on the follow-up. He launched his sophomore effort with a sinuous single helmed by Timbaland. He can dance his ass off. He’s had a pair of number one albums. Attention needs to be paid to former B2K leader Omarion.
His debut, 2005’s O, featured a pair of killer singles in the form of the genius-as-they-wanna-be Neptunes cut “Touch” (in ’83 it would’ve been a gigantic MJ hit) and the panty-dropping-guaranteed ballad “O,” along with a fair amount of not-exactly-filler but not-exactly-standouts either. O, however, had stronger songs than 21—but 21 has much stronger grooves, plus some great vocal embellishments from Omarion.
Lead single “Ice Box” furthers the argument that Timbaland is at his best with R&B; and pop songcraft rather than hip-hop these days; the song actually feels icy what with its pleading, desperate lyrics (and O’s singing, which is pleadingly perfect). It’s helped along, certainly, by Timbo’s “I’m so cold, I’m so cold, I’m so cold” iterations on the chorus. Following “Ice Box” is Eric Hudson’s “Electric,” which for all the world sounds like it could be an outtake from Justified, if not FutureSex/LoveSounds, a dance-pop track with serious spring in its step. (All the best male teenpop is being made by young black artists these days, y’know; Timberlake’s the exception that proves the rule.)
The album’s center is undoubtedly the Neptunes-helmed “Obsession,” a spare, percussive breakdown. This is one of the finest grooves you’re likely to hear all year, and more proof that just when you suspect Pharrell and Chad have used up all the tricks in their production toy box, they’re still capable of surprising you. There are some subsequent soft spots on 21—both “Made for TV” and “Been with a Star” show that Omarion apparently thinks a lot about his fame, to his detriment—but the majority of the album’s tracks hold up amazingly well upon repeated listenings. His sweet singing and a set of mostly solid-to-great songs (most of which he co-wrote), combined with superlative production, makes for the best straight-up R&B; album this side of Ciara’s The Evolution, and taken together the pair leave plenty of encouragement about the future of the genre.