What?s Going On, and Then Some: DeVaughn channels R&B?s greats on his messy LP.
What?s Going On, and Then Some: DeVaughn channels R&B?s greats on his messy LP.

On his new album, Raheem DeVaughn attempts to sum up the human experience. Simple, right? You don’t name your record The Love & War MasterPeace unless you’re serious, and DeVaughn has poured everything into the work, slaving over its every syllable, promoting it to anyone who will listen, negotiating with label execs over its format, and waiting patiently—for years—for its release. In the tradition of the most ambitious works from Marvin Gaye, Pink Floyd, and Guns N’ Roses, the D.C. crooner’s magnum opus doesn’t live up to the hype. But it mostly succeeds on its own terms, and with any luck will carve out its own little place in history.

The final product, originally intended to be a double album, is a bit of a mess. The righteously eccentric (yet smoothly seductive) R&B singer originally envisioned a “war” disc and a “love” disc, with each accentuating one of his fixations—politics and boots-knockin’. Apparently the record-label geniuses weren’t feeling the idea, or doubted the commercial viability of a double CD from an artist lacking a gold album or a name brand. (Three albums in, DeVaughn has worked with the biggest hitmakers in the business, but he’s more of an underground star than a mainstream one.)

And so MasterPeace is now a single CD, with the love- and war-themed tracks mixed haphazardly. But Jive has also decided to release a special bonus edition, which includes…an extra disc. Those who spring for the deluxe package get 20 songs, but the sequencing has been rendered meaningless, DeVaughn’s original vision squelched.

It still manages to pack a punch, however, and oddly enough its long delays have worked in its favor. Considering that most of the tracks date to 2007 or earlier, the work is timeless by necessity, and although it has politics on the brain, it’s not about current players like Barack Obama or Scott Brown or Sarah Palin’s grandson. “There are Republicans no man is safe from,” goes a verse of “Revelations 2010,” a standout track featuring Damian Marley. “There are Democrats no man is safe from.”

The single “Bulletproof” samples “The Other Side of Town,” Curtis Mayfield’s cinematic-yet-personal portrait of a decaying urban America. DeVaughn’s only slightly brisker reworking manages to capture the song’s down-but-not-out spirit and sports lyrics that could have been written in Mayfield’s day: “Get you a paper, turn on the news, ride through the hood, I’ll witness the blues/How can you ignore it, its easy to spot it, the trap house a liquor store, and your city’s got it.” Vocally, DeVaughn does his best Mayfield impression, as well, although his singing doesn’t quite equal Mayfield’s delicateness or tenderness.

Still, DeVaughn gets points for trying, and the album feels immediately familiar, an attempt to recreate the accessible yet socially conscious work of folks like Mayfield, Gaye, and Bob Marley. Indeed, it stands apart in an era of apolitical R&B clones. A far cry from the coke-rush sex-pop of Trey Songz and The-Dream, it instead works in the realm of the lush, the dark, and the dramatic, striving for a chiseled-in-granite sound. There’s not a note out of place here; the music is at times sweeping and blustery, at other times cautious and foreboding.

DeVaughn is clearly in search of gravitas, and for this reason enlists Princeton professor and occasional rapper Cornel West as the album’s narrator. West pops up every few tracks to offer sometimes-corny, sometimes-insightful commentary on what DeVaughn is trying to do. “He understands that justice is what love looks like in public, and deep democracy is what justice looks like in practice,” West says at the beginning.

Like the instructor, DeVaughn trades in code and metaphor. Sure, sometimes when he’s singing about war he’s actually singing about armed conflict, such as on the gargantuan closer “Nobody Wins a War,” which features Jill Scott, Anthony Hamilton, Dwele, Citizen Cope, Ledisi, and many others. (I could have sworn I heard Bill Cosby quietly scatting in the background.) But just as often, the wars he sings about are societal or personal ones, like on “I Don’t Care,” about the disdain a lady’s friends have for her love interest, or “Black & Blue,” which carries an anti-domestic violence message.

For a man whose biggest hit imagines sex as fast food (“Customer”), a lot of this is a stretch, but DeVaughn makes sure his lusty admirers aren’t wanting for R-rated raunch. On “B.O.B.” he insists he’s a better lover than the title character, who just happens to be made of silicone and runs on Duracell. (It’s her battery-operated boyfriend, see.) “Bedroom” and “Microphone” are overly earnest seduction tales; as far as symbolism, the former’s title should be interpreted literally, while the phallic metaphor of latter requires a little imagination.

Fortunately, these tracks are buried near the end, and they don’t really ruin the album before its big closers, “Nobody Wins a War” and “Revelations 2010.” But even after those two rousing tracks—which run about 13 minutes in total—the work seems to end too soon, and the bonus disc doesn’t succeed in and of itself. Four more segments of West’s philosophicating feels like a bit much, for example, although DeVaughn’s collaboration with Bun B, “Wing & a Prayer,” is a lot of fun.

MasterPeace doesn’t contain many memorable lyrics, and DeVaughn’s broad brush strokes over such a wide range of themes—personal development, spiritual fulfillment, relationship strife, needed societal reform—do little justice to any of them. But in its wild ambition the album is inspiring, and may remind other major-label artists that it’s possible to dream big. Or at least dream that, at a time when R&B is decades removed from its peak, a time when its men sound like rappers and its women sound like hack motivational speakers, DeVaughn’s work could change the game.