The Art of Compromise

Soul singer Musiq Soulchild balances integrity and commerce

Philly-born R&B artist Taalib Johnson, a.k.a. Musiq Soulchild, has a baby-making voice that causes ladies to swoon and record labels to see dollar signs. But it’s his ability to strike an emotional and commercial chord that sets Soulchild apart from the neo-soul pack. Well, that and his insistence on mixing things up arrangement-wise.

Take, for instance, his 2002 single “Halfcrazy,” from second album Juslisen, with its elegant nylon-string guitar played almost flamenco-style. It provides the perfect sonic texture for a pulsing, romantic slow jam about a guy going nuts over a girl. Or consider stripped-down “Radio,” a single from fifth album OnMyRadio, a synth-and-beats hip-hop track in which Soulchild gently scolds a young lady for touching, not simply turning up, his dashboard stereo.

For all the variety, Soulchild sticks close to his Philadelphia-music roots. You hear the soulful, intense, passionate sound of the city in every note—even when, at times, his music dips into ultra-commercial, Wal-mart-promo-ready territory, as on the too-smooth “Yes” from his most recent disc, 2011’s MusiqInTheMagiq.

“When you live in a city with such sound and musical history, it consistently shapes and molds your perspective on music,” says Soulchild, 35, who resides in the Atlanta area. “I appreciate it now more than ever, because I use Philadelphia as a reference point across the world. Philly was my first experience with music and gave me a different, deeply emotional take on things.”

Emotional doesn’t mean uncalculated. Soulchild doesn’t write and produce every song he records, but he’s involved in the process—either during a song’s inception or more often on the back end.

“I always try to add the Musiq element,” he says. “A song needs to have a large piece of who I am. I play a very heavy role in what you get from me, start to finish.”

Platinum-selling, multiple Grammy-nominated Soulchild acknowledges a record label’s motivator is money. Businesspeople approach with lists of priorities. They leverage an artist’s creativity, integrity.

“Creativity rarely leverages money, though” he says. “It’s frustrating to appease labels, because then music doesn’t feel like a joint venture. Truth is, they’re the ones funding a project, providing the resources. They can say ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ or leave it on a shelf to collect dust. It’s a balancing act. You compromise your notion of being an artist and do your best to achieve greatness.”

Sometimes greatness means giving fans different live arrangements of his songs. When you see Musiq this week, don’t expect exact re-creations of his many hits.

“It throws people,” he says. “They come up later: ‘Why not sing it like the record?’” Soulchild says he’ll patiently explain to anyone with a complaint that he’s in a different space. He’s a different person now than he was years ago and wants to give fans a representation of who he is today. No song will be unrecognizable, of course.

“You should be willing to grow with me,” he says. “You can go home and listen to the CD. Meanwhile, let’s have this experience and be open to happy surprises.”