Mr. Cheeks knows no fear. He switches lanes with his music like a road-hugging Ferrari weaving in and out of bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic. While hip hop contenders putt along in the lemon of the month, Mr. Cheeks is miles ahead, combing new territory, leaving laggers to eat his dust.
In the 10 years he’s been on the hip hop scene, Mr. Cheeks’ fearlessness has never been more apparent than on his new CD, Back Again his second solo for Universal Records. He takes the merging of hip hop and R&B to a new level, beyond an overzealous singer riffing in the background and belting out a hook or two; beyond borrowed tracks from R&B songs of yesterday. He creates a true blend of the two genres, interweaving them so seamlessly they create a new sound, a new style, a new genre.
But Mr. Cheeks doesn’t over analyze his music the way others might; he steers clear of his descriptions, imagery and metaphors. He prefers to just make music. “I just make records,” he says casually. “I just like making music.”
Nonetheless, the songs on this album couldn’t have just happened. They are the children of growth and maturity, both of which have informed Cheeks’ music with a breadth, depth and unparalleled originality, making his second solo outing a remarkable tour de force.
One of the finest examples of how skillfully Mr. Cheeks can shift gears is the lead single, the mellifluous “Crush on You.” The song is a dramatic departure from Cheeks’ previous hit, the beat-driven uptempo “Lights Camera Action.” The slow and irresistible R&B-flavored “Crush on You,” which is fashioned in the tradition of the Lost Boyz’ early hit “Renee” (from 1995’s Legal Drug Money CD), features R&B singer/producer Mario Winans, whose sweet crooning pleasantly offsets Mr. Cheeks’ raw, raspy rap style.
In that same romantic vein, “I Apologize,” which features the sweet, soulful vocals of Glenn Lewis, portrays a lover’s heartfelt plea for forgiveness. This song is yet another example of how even a rapper as entrenched in his hip hop roots as Mr. Cheeks can expand his horizons to appeal to a broader set of music lovers.
Not only does Back Again unite R&B and Hip -Hop, it also unites ‘old school’ acts with contemporary artists: From Pete Rock and CL Smooth to Journalist, from Alexander O’Neal to Glenn Lewis, Mr. Cheeks collaborates with the best that R&B and Hip-Hop have to offer. “Those are my past inspirations,” he says. “Pete Rock was one of the first cats I really looked up to streetwise as a rap artist and CL Smooth was a smooth cat. Alexander O’Neal – I always loved him since back in the days with Morris Day and Cherrelle.”
Cheeks says he likes to make contrasting genres “talk to each other.” “I look at Barry White, Marvin Gaye and Donnie Hathaway and I think if they were rhyming, how would they say it? That’s what I do.”
Cheeks’ album takes you back with “Reminisce,” an infectiously brilliant play on Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s 1992 hit “They Reminisce Over You.” Here, Cheeks is joined by the duo along with relative newcomer Journalist, as he pays homage to lost souls and days gone by.
On “Brighter,” Alexander O’Neal reprises his role as crooner extraordinaire, complementing Cheeks as they create the same musical magic O’Neal did on his 1987 hit.
Back Again, which uses the fun, timeless Rolls Royce hit, “Car Wash,” Cheeks makes his presence known, reminding fans and naysayers alike that his first solo album, John P. Kelly, was just the beginning. John P. Kelly was crazy,” he enthuses. “It took me a little while to come back and do the damn thing and put out this music but I’m back at it,” he says. “I’m definitely holding it down and I ain’t going nowhere.”
Cheeks’ favorite song on Back Again is “The Wire,” an old-school bass line-heavy groove which the rapper says is a throwback to his lyrical beginnings. “It brings it back to the essence,” he asserts.
Featured producers on Back Again include Winans, Bink!, (Lights Camera Action), Mr. Sexx, P. Diddy (“Pimpalicious”), Other celebrities are Floetry on the in-your-face “Supposed To”, MOP on “The Hussle.”
Born Terrance Kelly in Queens, New York, Cheeks says he always knew he wanted to be a recording artist. “When I was little, I used to look at Michael Jackson and I knew I had to be a part of that life. I did the day jobs and all that but I wanted to be a star. That was my goal.” Cheeks said he considered other options but none of them appealed to him. “I weighed my options when I was in school,” he recalls. “I tried sports and everything but the grades weren’t there. I wasn’t digging school like that. I got my GED and went about just trying to grow up.” Instead, he says, he ended up behind bars. “I was in jail when Kris Kross was doing the ‘jumpin’ and all that and I was like, ‘I got to get in the game’.” And he did just that.
Along with Pretty Lou, Spigg Nice and Freaky Tah, Cheeks formed the Lost Boyz. Their gold-selling debut Legal Drug Money hit the scene in 1996, followed by 1997’s gold Love Peace & Nappiness and 1999’s LB IV Life, which was released just after the tragic death of Freaky Tah.
While Cheeks says being solo is “cool,” he admits that he misses ” the Lost Boyz situation.” Nonetheless, he stresses, “Making music is making music and that’s what I’m doing. This is my dream.”