When he bailed out of school at 17, Talib Johnson's future seemed bleak. Jobless, and homeless, Johnson had to reach deep down to salvage himself from his native Philly's mean streets. But his confidence in his vocal abilities carried him through the rough times, and in 2000, the newly christened Musiq Soulchild's Grammy nominated debut, Aijuswanaseing, went platinum.
In May 2002, his second CD Juslisten crossed over, hitting No. 1 on both the hip-hop and R&B charts with the hits "Dontchange" and "Halfcrazy," winning another Grammy nod. Soulstar, released in 2003, won yet another Grammy nomination and spawned two more hits, "Forthenight" and "Whoknows."
There'd be a three-year lull between that one and the newly released Luvanmusiq. Prior to the album's release, Musiq had dropped his last name, saying that he felt he had not yet mastered his career. He spent that time touring and working on his new album as well as appearing on the East Coast in the play "Man Of Her Dreams." He's now rejoined the two names and is reintroducing himself. Speaking from a tour stop last week, Soulchild sounded more like a college professor than a high school dropout.
"Musiq was pretty much the recording artist who was designated to be the spokesperson and the face," he explains.
The Soulchild moniker was birthed from the desire to be creative unconditionally: "Raw, straight-up doing what I feel."
He says he ran into problems because his audience didn't really grasp his split personality. "I gotta warm them up to it, so it's gonna take time. The thing was, it confused people and kinda backfired."
Musiq's musical persona is fairly complicated. As an admitted admirer of Sly and the Family Stone, some have wondered if he took his fancifully phonetic spelling of albums and singles from Sly's playful '70s dictionary. But Soulchild says his word compression comes from just trying to save time getting ideas down on paper because they come into his head so fast. He's further split by his sound: part Stevie Wonder, part D'Angelo. It's a mix of old and new, with a Philly, old-school soul vibe to it as well.
Most performers hate labels, and Soulchild is no exception. He sees that as the root of his problems.
For starters, there are those who would label him as a soul man. But newer heads plaster him with the neo-soul label. "If you asked me what would I call what I do, I would always tell you I make soul music," Soulchild says. "I'm a soul artist. I'm contributing to the legacy and tradition of soul music."
But those who stick him with the neo-soul label present another problem. "For me to deny that would be for me to deny what I'm doing. If that's what people call it, then that is, in fact, what I'm doing as far as they are concerned. But if you ask me, I would call it what it is, and it's soul music."
That is, when it's not R&B. "I do make R&B music," he says. "I do contribute to the legacy and the tradition of R&B music. But I do more than that, and I would like to do even more, but it's challenging to do that when you have an audience that's just conditioned to expect certain things from you and that's all they wanna be accepting from you."
He colored outside the lines a bit in with Power of Soul: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix that won him a Grammy nomination in 2004. But the Grammy way of labeling confused fans and critics alike when it labeled Soulchild's take on Hendrix's "Are You Experienced" as "Best Urban Alternative Performance."
"I don't know what their process is behind it and what their intelligence is when it comes to different genres, categories and names," Soulchild says. "From my perspective, I can only go off of what I know and what I know is I'm doing is more than just sticking to one lane."
Luvanmusiq seems to cater to both sides of Musiq Soulchild's split personality. He's even given some space over to hip-hop, trying out a few bars of MCing on "Buddy." But he says his audience isn't ready for him to drop a full 16 bars on them. "But instead of making a big fuss about it, I'm doing the best I can to contribute to inspiring the idea in the minds of my audience and my fans so they'll be willing to accept it."
That mindset has taken Soulchild into other genres as well, but once again he's hesitant about dropping other styles on his audience. At one point, he talked about going Caribbean, but now he's a bit more guarded about incorporating dancehall or even Latin music into his sound. "There's more to music to me than R&B and neo-soul. However, we already established myself a certain way and business-wise, it only makes sense to reintroduce yourself as other people know you, otherwise you're gonna be spending more time to get them to know you that I really don't want to have to do."
But Soulchild's in it for the long haul. He's determined to build his momentum once again. This resurrected, reunited Musiq Soulchild has come back as a focused, career-oriented businessman who knows his craft and how to market himself. "I'm trying to introduce the idea to my audience that there's more to music that I want to do, to contribute to music in as many ways as possible," he says. "However, in this business, things are set up a certain way, so you gotta honor it if you expect to be successful."
Musiq Soulchild plays Amos SouthEnd (1423 S. Tryon St.) Sun., Feb. 18. Doors open at 7:30 p.m.; show starts at 8:30 p.m.