(nytimes.com) The poles of modern R&B are, roughly, R. Kelly and Usher, who have a preoccupation with sex in common but little else. Mr. Kelly, despite his constitutional lasciviousness, is a direct inheritor of the church’s inspired shouts, a channeler of outrageously deep sentiment and in easy command of his gift. By contrast, Usher is studiously anodyne, using his limber voice to sketch feelings without ever filling them in.
For years Trey Songz has been squeezing into Mr. Kelly’s shadow, not a surprise for a man who, on his fifth album, “Chapter V,” spells interlude “interlewd.” Trey Songz has never been as powerful a singer as Mr. Kelly, but he huffs and puffs convincingly, and his commitment to intimate detail mirrors Mr. Kelly’s; both men are happy to draw blueprints, giving big voice to small, sometimes odd details.
There are limits, though, to the R. Kelly model, and Trey Songz, a reliable hitmaker but not a true star, has been pushing up against them for the last couple of years. On “Chapter V,” one of his most consistently strong albums, he begins to explore life on the other side. That’s clear from the moist single “Dive In,” in which he deploys a light and lovely falsetto that’s reminiscent of Usher, even though the quaver in his voice elsewhere on the song is pure R. Kelly.
There’s a similar back and forth on “Panty Wetter,” which has R. Kelly intensity but which includes a possible wink: “I just wanna go nice and slow,” he sings, suggesting the Usher hit of that name.
Usher has one thing on Mr. Kelly: he’s a true pop star, largely because he filters some of the church intensity out of R&B, not just in his recent dance-soul period, but even before then. On “Chapter V” it’s easy to hear Trey Songz toggling between these two extremes, bending his voice in different ways as the mood, and the mold, demands.
“Without a Woman” is heavily declamatory, a pure distillation of Mr. Kelly, while “Simply Amazing” has the pop pomp of recent Usher hits. “2 Reasons,” which has an almost dancehall-like buoyancy, sounds like the R. Kelly club hits of a decade ago, while the processed vocals on “Never Again” are closer to Usher’s digital seduction — and, it should be said, heavily detract from Trey Songz’s charm.
Undeniably, this is a conundrum, but this flexible singer may have sensed a way out of this hamster wheel. “Pretty Girl’s Lie,” about the difficulties of loving a troubled woman, opens with an ominous piano and finds Trey Songz in his darkest mood. The betrayal, the disappointment, the vocals squeezed tight and aspirated: the third direction is Michael Jackson. He could do worse.