By Mark Guarino
Fair or not, Ginuwine has boxed in the shadow of R. Kelly since the late ‘90s when Kelly began to dominate hip-hop soul with more hits, more production credits and much more controversy.
But there is a distinct difference. Although both are sex symbols who made bedroom R&B their calling card, Ginuwine — born in Wash. D.C. with the unlikely name Elgin Baylor Lumpkin — is further steeped in the type of emotionally stirring soul music born and bred in Memphis decades ago. His fourth album, “The Senior” (Epic), features a cameo from Kelly plus contributions from Snoop Dogg, Method Man and Sole, also the mother of his two children. While it’s not without its booming club tracks, the album is heavy with reflective slow jams about the price of love and catchy pop-oriented tunes celebrating being swept up in the middle of it. Other songs lauding long-term relationships and fatherhood (“Love You More” and “Our First Born”) show even masters of the slow grind grow up someday.
The dexterity helped him become a multi-platinum seller plus climb the heap of other contemporary soul crooners, evidenced by his headliner slot of his current tour, supported by Joe and Jagged Edge. Always a gentleman, he insists competition doesn’t exist on the road. “We share the same band and that’s unheard of,” he said. “Usually with R&B groups, there’s a bunch of egos, but with us, there’s none of that.”
The singer-songwriter talked recently about the new album and tour. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: Your debut album came out when you were 21 and now you’re 28. When writing about love is your job, is your age relevant to finding something new to say about romance?
A: Actually, when you get older (the music) should get better as you experience more stuff and take more notice and understand it more. Versus when you’re younger and happy-go-lucky and it’s like, “okay next one.” So with age comes more wisdom. You get to write more about stuff in depth. And get the attention of older people, not only the younger crowd you already have.
Q: So somehow you’re reaching different age groups even though you’re singing about the same subject.
A: Everybody experiences situations along the same lines as everybody else does but just at different times. You experience the best friend talking about you or the best friend not liking you or the best friend thinking you’re doing something with their girl. That’s what I write about. As soon as something happens to myself, I write about it because that’s the thing that get people can relate to.
Q: You’re a child of the ‘80s when hip-hop was brand new. Why did you choose to become an R&B balladeer instead of a rapper?
A: Because I really thought R&B was about love and love songs. And in the past few years it’s just changed. You can talk about clubs and liquor and you know, stuff like that (laughs). But I was brought up in the era of just love and that’s what was happening. So we wrote about it. Although my love songs were a little edgier.
Q: Do you feel a connection to R&B’s golden period of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s?
A: I feel a connection to those singers as far as entertainment. As far as what I’m talking about, no. Times change. There’s just different things that go on in this day and age that weren’t going on in the ‘70s. But as part as the entertainment goes, yeah. I try to pattern myself after the great ones: Nat King Cole, Jackie Wilson, Michael Jackson. Even Bobby Brown and MC Hammer, you know?
Q: One song I can’t imagine Nat King Cole singing is “Locked Up.” You’re singing it from the perspective of someone who’s incarcerated.
A: I always thought when you do an album, you want to be experimental, you want to do things that make it interesting for you. Just like you said, you don’t want to keep writing about the same thing all the time … (The song’s) not too far-fetched from things that can happen. People do go to a club, get in trouble and end up going to court for it.
Q: Was there someone specifically you had in mind when you wrote that song?
A: No, not really. It was just me sitting in the studio starting to wander off in my own little world. You know, turn the lights down, turn the lava lamps on and just think. (laughs)
Q: There’s been somewhat of a competition between you and R. Kelly. Yet he gave you “Hell Yeah,” one of the album’s poppiest tracks.
A: It was always friendly competition. But I was surprised to see him give me a song. A lot of people used to say he wouldn’t do it. I always wanted to work with him because he’s such a great artist and for him to give me that (song), I was really pleased and very happy.
Q: Did it come to you out of the blue?
A: We were looking for a first single and I kept saying “we don’t have it” and the label said “we have one from R. Kelly,” so of course we’re going to listen to it because he is hot and everything he touches is the bomb.
Q: How it is to headline a tour where you come out onstage after several groups have already done their job delivering the love songs to the ladies? Is there competition to see who can make the most women swoon?
A: Honestly, I do know everybody has their own fans who come to see them but who also come see the whole show … My thing is that I want all the ladies who come see me to wear red, you know, what I’m saying? And that’s what I look at when I’m singing. When you see red, it’s for you, you know it’s for you.
Q: When you were a kid, you entered contests as a Michael Jackson impersonator. Was he the main guy for you growing up?
A: Prince and him were the main guys. Back then, they were the only two who were out. You liked Prince and you liked Michael. I liked both for different reasons. Prince, because he was so outgoing, Michael because he was an entertainer.
Q: Does it disappoint you, as a fan, to hear about all his legal trouble?
A: Well yeah, of course when it’s somebody who’s your idol, someone you looked up to a lot, you don’t want to see anything bad happen to them. Because really, Michael Jackson is an inspiration to a lot of artists out there right now, a lot of them, almost all of them, even rappers. So it’s like, he opened the door for us in a lot of ways that no one else could because he was so successful. And to see him get into all this trouble makes you … wish it never happened. But if he is guilty, he definitely deserves everything he gets.
Q: As a songwriter, what is the fine line between saying too much and saying too little in a love song?
A: Right now I’m not even aware of it. I write what I want to write, I say what I want to say. Once we get finished with it, if it’s a song we’re going to use for the radio, we go fix it. It’s as simple as that. I don’t want to limit myself. Because some words I may use may trigger something else that makes that song what it is, even if it’s not sexually explicit. You don’t ever want to hold back as an artist or a writer, you write exactly what you feel. You critique it later but you have to get it out of your system. You never want to limit yourself because that might stop other ideas.
Q: What makes a love ballad timeless?
A: I think you have to use words that are very powerful. Not ABC words like, “you love me, I love you too.” You have to really go deep and use words that have more than one meaning .You have to dig. There’s enough ABC songs on the radio.
Q: Do you have to be in a certain mood when you’re recording them?
A: When I sing the songs, I’m really looking for it to be really catchy and real melodic. I definitely want people — people who can’t even sing — to go along with it and hum. I don’t like to do a whole bunch of riffing because average, everyday people can’t do that. So if you can sing something very simple, very to the point but sounds good at the same time, I think that’s when it hits.