In his nearly three decades as a national recording artist, Johnny Gill has shown himself to be an immensely talented vocalist who has never reached the level of critical achievement that his talents appeared to warrant. The former classmate and friend of Stacy Lattisaw was discovered and signed by the Cotillion label when he was just a teenager, and his deep, mature voice and interpretive skills were jaw dropping. He appeared to be the heir apparent to such artists as Jeffrey Osborne, Peabo Bryson and James Ingram, but time would show a lack of musical vision to be his Achilles' heel. Each of those seminal male vocalists carved for himself a distinctive place in the musical landscape and a career's worth of great songs and albums. Gill, on the other hand, largely emerged as a great voice in search of a musical personality, often adopting the aural identity carved for him by the producers with which he worked but not establishing a enduring persona.
Consequently, his career has been a moderately frustrating puzzle, with distinct high points (most notably, his smash self-titled third album and his work as a second generation member of New Edition) and just as many faceless recordings and long, unexplained gaps.
Gill has been on the recording sidelines now for over 15 years, a drought that ends with his new disc, Still Winning, on the upstart Notifi Records imprint. During his earlier time in the sun, Gill always attracted A-level talent around him (he was the first artist to have both Babyface/L.A. Reid and Jam/Lewis - the two hottest R&B teams of the 90s - work on the same album), and he does it again on Winning. Jam and Lewis are back, along with hot producers Bryan Michael Cox and Troy Taylor. But despite all the hands on deck, Winning is in many ways a microcosm of the inconsistency that has dogged Gill's recording career.
The opening numbers on Winning don't make Gill's long absence appear to be time well spent. They begin with the title track, a lyrical declaration of Gill's return but not the kind of killer musical stake in the ground that one would expect after all those years. While it is admirable that Gill is not resting on tired mid-90s grooves this time around, "Still Winning's" dramatic keyboard riffs and rap interludes have the feel of a song and artist chasing five year old trends rather than creating new ones. And he follows it with the midtempo "Let's Stay Together" and the first single, "In the Mood," two songs that epitomize the vacuousness of Gill's most generic work, sounding more like Keith Sweat retreads than the first releases by an artist trying to reestablish himself after a decade and a half away.
Maybe a bigger surprise than Still Winning's forgettable start is its stark improvement mid-disc. "Just the Way You Are" is not a classic but is materially stronger that its predecessors, both hooky and respectful of the singer's great pipes. "Black Box" sounds about 10 years old, but works in a catchy, Dru Hill sort of way. Gill then knocks out a series of ballads that mark the album's high points, beginning with the surprising reunion of LSG (but with Eddie Levert replacing deceased son Gerald) on the enjoyable "Long Long Time." "2nd Place" follows as just as big a shock: a beautiful love song on which the baritone vocalist sings in falsetto from start to finish. "Who is He" and "It Would Be You" complete the string, each a decent composition that Gill raises a level with that voice, reminding us again why we thought the teenager from D.C. would be the next Luther.
One can't listen to such earlier recordings as "I Know Where I Stand" or "Can You Stand The Rain" and not feel that Johnny Gill is one of the most naturally gifted singing talents of his generation. And so it is a shame that his body of work has neither reached those lofty early expectations nor really defined who he is as an artist. Unfortunately, Still Winning is not the album that will answer those questions. It is yet another tease that shows Gill to be a singer who at times mesmerizes and at other times settles for the pedestrian and the trite. Johnny Gill is simply too talented a vocalist to ignore but on Winning he again fails to deliver the album that his immense skills have seemed to promise for thirty years. Mildly recommended.
By Chris Rizik