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Like “Album-Oriented Rock” in the late ’70s and early ’80s, commercial R&B from the ’80s and ’90s has a mass audience but is often lambasted by critics for its formulaic blandness. Thus, when an artist appears who seems to be breaking that mold and is also selling a lot of records, music reviewers (yours truly occasionally included), in a manner more fawning than is normal for the trade, jump on the bandwagon in an effort to foster permanent stylistic change. Last year’s heavily touted urban-contemporary savior was D’Angelo; this year it’s Tony Rich, a Detroit native who came to attention as an Atlanta songwriter and producer for acts associated with L.A. Reid, such as Pebbles, Boyz II Men, and Toni Braxton. Picking up on the sensitive-soul-man-with-acoustic-guitar persona exploited by former Reid associate Babyface on 1993’s “When Can I See You?,” Rich crafts a sound glossy enough for urban contemporary radio but without the rote sexual bravado and generic computer-programmed instrumentation typical of the genre. His articulation of this warmer sound interweaves distinguished strumming, unhurried drum beats, and his own mournful, melodic croon to make a collection of soft-textured laments. At his most proficient, as on the beautifully sad, organ-accompanied “Under Her Spell,” the Prince-influenced “Hey Blue,” and the melodramatic first single, “Nobody Knows,” Rich justifies his favorable press. Truth be told, however, a number of tediously similar cuts with less gripping refrains portend the possibility that this promising upstart may merely be substituting one set of confining compositional techniques for another. As a whole, Words is not the breakthrough detractors of contemporary R&B wish for. Nevertheless the disc’s most sublime pop- and gospel-rooted tales of romance augur hope for the future of the genre.

—Steve Kiviat