Sometimes an artist comes along that has true talent, but has inexplicably experienced only moderate success. An underappreciated singer/songwriter, Donell Jones fuses both hip hop and old-school soul to create a special brand of soul.
Jones first came to my attention in 1999, when he released his second album, Where I Wanna Be. Featuring a black-and-white photo of Jones sporting a fedora and wielding a guitar, the album exuded a retro quality while still including modern beats. "U Know What's Up," the first single, had a finger-popping, catchy tempo with Jones' laid-back vocal setting the cool tone. Fans of the film Save the Last Dance may recall the tune being used during a rehearsal sequence. Back then I was so taken with the track that I purchased the cassette single, which also featured excerpts from two other songs: the album's title track and "Shorty (Got Her Eyes on Me)." The former showcased Jones' songwriting skills, chronicling a man wanting to take a break in his relationship. Try not to sing along with its longing chorus: "She's crying her heart to me/How could you let this be/I just need time to see/Where I wanna be." "Shorty" involves a man smoothly seducing a woman: "Now you're the baddest thing I've seen tonight/So come on girl let's put it in flight," he croons. These irresistibly ear-catching songs convinced me that Jones is a talent to contend with.
Hailing from Chicago's South Side, Jones escaped a life in gangs to focus on his music. According to AllMusic's biography, he eventually met former Heavy D and the Boyz member Edward "Eddie F" Farrell, and the two formed a partnership with LaFace records (L.A. Reid and Babyface's influential label). Jones began his career as a songwriter, penning hits for Usher (1994's "Think of You") and 702 (1997's "Get It Together"). But he wanted to perform his own material, and he got that chance in 1996 with his first effort, My Heart, scoring a modest R&B hit with a cover of Stevie Wonder's "Knocks Me Off My Feet." But Where I Wanna Be proved to be a greater success.
While still writing songs for other artists, he produced two more albums: Life Goes On (2002) and Journey of a Gemini (2006). Both continued to display Jones' knack for creating a street-smart groove, writing interesting lyrics, and including a catchy melody. Highlights from Life Goes On include "Still," a bass-driven single, and "Put Me Down," showing he has great talent for writing for the dance floor. But "You Know That I Love U" particularly stands out, due to Jones' delicate vocal that the beat never overshadows. He clearly understands that great singers never need to engage in "vocal acrobatics," or oversinging every line. The chorus features beautiful harmonies that communicate a simple message: "Just let me show you/Just how much you mean to me." "This Luv" also has snappy percussion that is a perfect counterpoint to his smooth voice. On Life Goes On he even includes a sequel to "Where I Wanna Be" entitled "Where You Are (Is Where I Wanna Be)," where he pleads with his love to forgive him.
Journey of a Gemini's songs lean more toward aggressive hip hop, but Jones' beautiful voice still shines through on such tracks as "I'm Gonna Be," where he rides the heavy beat effortlessly while a gentle melody underlies the entire song. The midtempo "Spend the Night" has a harder sound, but his smooth vocals rescue the song from sounding run-of-the-mill. Want something danceable? Try "Better Start Talking," featuring Jermaine Durpi. But he reaches emotional heights with "Cry," an unflinching look at life in the inner city. "Momma's trickin' to feed the baby yo/Cause daddy took the money and put it up his nose," he laments, while the guitar riff and beat from Hall and Oates' "Sara Smile" adds to the mourning tone. While his songs concerning relationships certainly resonate, it would be interesting to hear Jones write and sing from a more personal perspective.
Last year Jones released a compilation of previously unreleased tracks, The Lost Files, but has not issued a full studio album since 2006. Hopefully he will release a new album soon that displays his gift for writing R&B with old-school and hip-hop sensibilities. Despite his talent, Jones has yet to experience massive crossover success, and it will be fascinating to see if future albums will finally earn him the recognition he deserves.