Kevin Jenkins – Step Inside
Record Label: True Groove
Release Date: September 9, 2013
Even if you don’t recognize the name “Kevin Jenkins” on first blush, chances are you’ve heard him before. Jenkins, a Brooklyn-based R&B and soul artist, is a legendary sideman who has played bass all over countless records, albums with everyone from Cyndi Lauper to Enrique Iglesias to Roberta Flack to Shemekia Copeland. He’s opened shows for Michael Jackson, Eric Clapton, BB King, and Joe Cocker, and he’s played legendary stages at venues all over the globe, from Madison Square Garden to the Budokan. However, despite all of the accomplishments that Jenkins has notched in his belt over the course of his 38-year career, he’s never been a frontman. That all changes on his versatile new record, called Step Inside, which culls influence from every artist Jenkins has ever played with—and probably plenty he hasn’t—into a smooth and cool set of R&B/pop/soul/funk/jazz fusion tunes.
For listeners who have gotten into R&B with the genre’s recent burst of modern innovators—guys like Frank Ocean or the Weeknd—Step Inside may sound instantly out-of-date. It’s certainly an old-fashioned record, especially on songs like “Wichita Lineman,” which boasts an army of strings and Bee Gees-style back-up vocals, or “Learn to Love,” which ups the ante with some Boyz II Men cheesiness. “Amazing” might be the worst offender, a song that sounds like vocal jazz crossed with Hootie and the Blowfish, with a breezy folk-pop lilt and some naval-gazing lyrical content that hits a few too many cliches to be effective.
Many of the more cynical listeners out there will likely cringe at “Amazing”—and indeed, at the majority of Step Inside—for just how 1990s Rom Com it all sounds. (Seriously, some of Jenkins’ songs sound precisely like the kind of vocal tour-de-force R&B pop that played over the credits of every other movie for that entire decade.) Aside from a few genre-hopping moments, this record is far from edgy or innovative, and to be honest, Jenkins could have taken a cue from a few of today’s R&B trendsetters (or from a few of the artists he’s played with, for that matter) and made a debut record that took a more chances or steered clear of the many adult contemporary pitfalls that this one suffers. Even the song titles, dime-a-dozen designations like "What Comes Around," "Can't Get Over You," or "Walk Away," sound like things we've heard a million times before.
But even with all that said, Jenkins is a massive musical talent who deserves to be out front, and Step Inside offers no evidence to the contrary. “Wichita Lineman” sounds like a lost Luther Vandross cut, with Jenkins’ velvety tenor floating over the smooth and soulful arrangement in a truly timeless fashion. Throughout the course of Step Inside, Jenkins opts for peppy tempos and uplifting lyrics more often than not, but the elegant sadness of “Wichita Lineman” is enough to make you wish that he brought out the soulful ballad maneuver more often. This guy could bring the house down with a record full of slow jams, whether they took the form of sad blues elegies, nineties heartbreak hymns, or classic jazz standards. Sure, it’s fun when he plays around with genres too--as on “Save the Day,” where a funky harmonica, a horn arrangement, and flashes of B3 organ flit through a foot-tapping reggae groove, the infectious “Take This Ride,” which lands somewhere between E Street Shuffle era Springsteen and “Gimme Shelter”-esque Rolling Stones (complete with soulful female vocals and a scathing guitar solo), or “Change of Heart,” which bears an irresistible 1970s Earth, Wind, and Fire vibe. But with a voice so tailor-made for breaking hearts, and plenty of musical talent up his sleeve, it feels like Kevin Jenkins should be capable of creating a record that knocks the ball out of the park on every track rather than on half of them.