Who knows if Tevin Campbell can play the piano or if he even owns a big floppy hat. Either way, the song “Don’t Throw Your Life Away,” from his self-titled album (Qwest Records), refreshingly recalls the image of D.C. soul legend Donny Hathaway sitting at his piano in one of his trademark hats, singing uplifting tales of black life and love.
Campbell wrote the song for a young family member who was shot in his home town of Waxahachie, Tex. He sings such lines as “We live in a world of trouble/ But that doesn’t mean you can’t make it” with supple gospel-powered verve and the spiritual uplift that’s often missing from contemporary R&B.
On much of his fourth album, the 22-year-old Campbell, who was discovered by producer-media mogul Quincy Jones at age 12, grapples with the theme of becoming a better man in the face of life’s many temptations. This makes the album thematically similar to current hits by rappers DMX (“Slippin’ “) and the late 2Pac (“Changes”), except the backdrops for Campbell’s struggles are romantic relationships, not petty crimes.
On his first single, a slinky mid-tempo groove titled “Another Way,” Campbell recounts flings with a string of women from “around the way,” all “draped in lace,” but ultimately declares, “I don’t want to live this way. . . . I think it’s time to make a change.” On the slow jam “The Only One for Me,” he sings, “I don’t want to play those games no more.” And on the lovely ballad “Since I Lost You,” which features some of the prettiest male backing vocals in recent R&B memory, Campbell tries to forgive himself for letting down a lover.
Campbell can sing the droopy drawers off fellow R&B crooner Usher, and with this album he leaves the plaintive puppy love of his earlier hits to explore the spiritual costs and rewards of love, making him a deserved bearer of an esteemed soul music tradition.