The Sexiest Sex Machine
Jamie Foxx's new album.
Ladies, Jamie Foxx is going to make you feel like you never felt before. He is going to work you over. He'll meet you in the bathroom of the club for a freaky episode. He will kiss you right below the navel, then rub you with oil on your ear. There'll be puddles in the bed by the time Foxx gets through with you. Girl, the rain is coming.
I know all this because Foxx says so—nearly verbatim—on his new album, Unpredictable, which descended upon record stores just before Christmas in a vaporous cloud of Spanish fly. Unpredictable debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard chart and reached the top spot a week later, a showing that was only slightly better than expected. Even before Foxx won an Oscar for portraying Ray Charles, he was a rising musical star. His 1994 debut, Peep This!, went nowhere, but he's spent the past couple of years angling onto the hip-hop/R&B A-list, forming an alliance with Kanye West and appearing on songs by 50 Cent, Ludacris, and other big-name rappers. He contributed vocals to two No. 1 singles, Twista's "Slow Jamz" and West's "Gold Digger." His piano and vocal skills were praised by Ray Charles himself, and when the Grammy Awards paid posthumous tribute to Charles in 2005, there was Foxx, enthroned behind a gleaming baby grand, belting out "Georgia on My Mind." The record industry is so eager to coronate Foxx that it couldn't even wait for the release of a proper album: Foxx's rendition of Stevie Wonder's "Creepin' " on a Luther Vandross tribute collection earned him a nomination in the upcoming Grammys.
The question wasn't whether Foxx would be a star, but what kind of star he'd be. On Unpredictable, Foxx answers that question with, as one song title puts it, a "Three Letter Word." "S-E-X/ Sex, all the time/ Sex, on my mind," he sings over a desultory wash of synthesizers and a clicking beat. Foxx seems determined to out-Don Juan everyone: Usher, Barry White, Marvin Gaye, even Smoove B. He appears in the CD booklet's foldout poster in a suave love-man pose—slit-eyed, shirtless, with rippling washboard abs and a goatee whose lustrous sheen could only have been achieved with the aid of professional landscapers.
The songs, meanwhile, offer a virtually unbroken string of come-ons and promises to "put work in from every position" and "kiss your body while I take your freakin' clothes off." Foxx is a former stand-up comedian who elsewhere has demonstrated a healthy grasp of the absurdity of pop music clichés. So, it's a bit of a shocker to hear him crooning couplets such as, "I know you're used to dinner and a movie/ Why not be my dinner, while making a movie?"Foxx's sense of humor (and sense of shame) has evidently diminished in direct proportion to his exploding fame. But Unpredictable holds a larger lesson about male R&B singers and the lost art of "baby-makin' music."
First, a word about Foxx's musicianship. Jamie Foxx is not Eddie Murphy, and Unpredictable is not How Could It Be. Foxx can sing: His voice is bland, but it's a supple instrument. He slides nimbly between a middle-register croon and falsetto, and can syncopate phrases over a beat in the rapid-fire modern-day technique. Elaborate gospel-style runs are beyond Foxx's talents, but he's smart enough not to try. In a world full of R&B over-emoters, Foxx is reined-in. In fact, sonically, the whole album is pretty restrained—sleek but unremarkable boudoir music, with crisp digital beats and plenty of background plushness.
The words Foxx sings are rather less subtle. Foxx is obsessed with sexual choreography—with kitchen tables, "rodeo wire," thighs hitched in the air, and other activities involving hard surfaces, sturdy twine, and improbable calisthenics. These fantasies occasionally take the form of yearning pleas—the traditional love-man mode—but most of the time Foxx is just boasting. This shift from entreaties (Please, baby, come get to this) to braggadocio (Girl, I'm-a freak you nasty) is the signal feature of the modern slow jam, and it's clear where R&B lotharios like Usher and Ginuwine and their next-generation imitators (Mario, Omarion, Trey Songz) learned their moves: from rappers. Of course, rappers are good at bragging; it's what they do. But today's balladeers just sound silly warbling about their sexual prowess—one too many boasts about doggy-style boot-knocking can really drain a song of its, um, romance. As shit-talking and seduction have gotten conflated, much of R&B has become perilously cheesy.
Boudoir soul is a perfectly noble musical tradition that Foxx and Co. have gotten terribly wrong. Consider Marvin Gaye, the indomitable ne plus ultra of love men. He more or less invented the genre in the early 1970s with songs such as "You Sure Love To Ball" which laid waste to decades of coy sex talk and double entendres. Today's R&B playboys enshrine Gaye as their god—Foxx paid homage in "Slow Jamz"—but most of Gaye's imitators miss the pathos and desperation that gave his music its edge. (Everyone knows "Sexual Healing," but have you heard the song's final couplet, whispered over the fadeout: "Please don't procrastinate/ I don't want to masturbate?") Gaye was the son of a Pentecostal minister and his strict religious upbringing made him a conflicted libertine. The surpassing sexiness of "Let's Get It On," "I Want You," and Gaye's other classics is due in no small part to that tension: the thrill of Saturday night's sins all mixed up with the fire-and-brimstone-stoked shame of Sunday morning's repentance.
Gaye's true heirs aren't peacocking R&B playboys like Foxx but female soul singers, who balance sex appeal and vulnerability. Recently, though, a couple of the leading love men started getting more interesting. After years playing the Lothario, Usher released Confessions (2004), a theme album about infidelity that explored both the joys of sex and its perils, emotional and otherwise: unwanted pregnancies, dread diseases, ruined relationships, a scorned woman coming after you armed with a plate of hot grits. R. Kelly's "hip-hopera," Trapped in the Closet, currently 12 chapters long and counting, takes sex farce to rococo extremes, with a cast of paramours that includes husbands, wives, homosexuals, clergymen, and a midget male stripper named Big Man. For the first time in a long time, love men are giving us something legitimately "freaky": the dark side of the booty call.
Foxx, of course, is too vanilla to come up with anything kinky. And too self-involved. That's the biggest deficiency of today's love men: They're more into themselves than into their women. Foxx's erotica nearly always degrades into autoerotica. In "Storm (Forecass),"an extended conceit about cunnilingus, he spends the whole song detailing his look ("Got nothing but my T-shirt and boxers on") and technique ("It's cloudy skies, right there between your thighs/ I'm pluckin' for scattered showers, for about an hour"), and you can't help but wonder if Foxx really even wants a partner: Give this guy a ceiling mirror and a vat of baby lotion and he'll be set for the night. The "ladies" deserve someone better.
Jody Rosen is Slate's music critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Audio excerpts from Unpredictable © 2005 J Records; Midnight Love © 1982 Columbia; and Tha Truth About Me © 2005 Unsigned. All rights reserved. Photograph of Jamie Foxx by Susan Goldman/AFP/Getty Images.