Brian McKnight is not who you think he is.
"The real me isn't necessarily the person who is writing," he says, to the sound of women everywhere weeping. "Those are moments in time that may have happened to me or not."
The silken-voiced man known for his love songs claims a consistency throughout his work, even if you may think you are noticing more of a hip-hop cast to his recent recordings. Rappers Skip, Juvenile, Akon, and Talib Kweli all guest on his latest, Gemini; Tank, Carl Thomas, Nelly, and Fabolous all appeared on 2003's U-Turn.
The names left McKnight to answer questions about his r&b and adult contemporary intentions. By bringing in the rap and hip-hop idols, was he making a blatant plea for young listeners? No, he says, he's always collaborated with different artists, and people shouldn't find it so surprising.
"People are like, 'You're friends with Juvenile, how is that possible?' Because we're human beings, that's how," he says. "I don't just sit around making music all day. I have a life. I have friends who are not necessarily who you would think. People are like, 'Oh no, not Mr. Lovesong-Singing Man! He has to be someplace with candles lit!'"
McKnight is not interested in a pigeonhole, and with all his talent and good fortune he doesn't have to be. He's young but already rich and famous, thanks to a signature falsetto, a collection of date-night tunes, and a non-threatening, sensual persona. Not only can he throw down a sex ballad like few others, he lays down a satin pillow strewn with rose petals to break its fall.
So much more than a voice, McKnight also writes, plays several instruments, and produces his music. He says he has a problem with focus, but no harm no foul: His quest for the new translates into versatility and crossover appeal. This year the self-proclaimed jazzhead will release, in addition to another mainstream album, an album of all jazz.
"I have a theory," he says. "I've done three-million, I've done four-million, but that 10-million seller has escaped me because I can't focus on one thing. I make soul music, because it's music for the soul. Some days I'm a rock star. Some days I'm just a ballad-singing black dude."
He's involved in every step of a song's way but says the root of a lasting classic is in the writing. And with music, he says, it's not just lyric and melody that count; you have to give listeners something to hold on to, content they can recognize.
"It doesn't really matter that I sing all this crazy mess," he says. "Joe Public listening on the radio can't sing along with that. In any other form of entertainment, the people who are best tend to be rewarded the most. Music isn't that way. There's something very strange that happens when people need to relate to what you're doing."
But after thinking about it, working on it, diversifying, jumping into different music styles, collaborating with the best artists of the day from country to rap, does it bother him that the only song of his we can't forget is that really sexy love ballad?
"At the end of the day, how many people will be remembered for anything?" he says. "And I've got that one thing. I understand that those kinds of songs are the songs that last forever. You can't tell me what the big, hot, hip-hop dance tune was last summer, because they come and go. But you put on Lionel Richie doing 'Three Times a Lady'? Everybody knows that."
Brian McKnight | Sunday, July 17 | 7:15 p.m.