Dudley Perkins

A Lil' Light

Think of some of the famous male voices of R&B -- Stevie Wonder, Al Green, and more recently, D'Angelo -- proof that great soul music goes hand in hand with vocal virtuosity, right? Not in the case of L.A.'s Dudley Perkins. In a twist on that old joke about the guy so ugly he could break a mirror, Perkins' gravelly, perennially off-key voice is so tuneless it could undo an Autotuner, that studio device that turns the likes of Mariah Carey and Cher into pitch-perfect glissando robots. In fact, on "Muzak," one of the more startling tracks on his debut album, A Lil' Light, produced by studio maverick Madlib, Perkins seems intent upon doing just that: Singing the word "music" over and over through an Autotuner, he contorts his voice into unseemly yelps and detuned croons that the software strains to resolve into "right" notes. Just as "Muzak" tests the limits of digital beautification, the album as a whole stretches the boundaries of R&B itself.

And it's not all so flippant. "Falling," a mournful arrangement of strings/bass/ beats, finds Perkins lamenting what happens to a society where ignorance triumphs. The oddly plangent "Momma" ("It was you who gave me life/ Momma") big-ups Mom over a bubbling backing that might sound maternally soothing if it weren't so unhinged. With "Money," on the other hand, it's hard to figure out what Perkins really thinks: In a faltering falsetto, he sings, "It's all I live for/ For the love of cash," and one suspects an ironic intention -- but Perkins isn't giving anything away.

Madlib's production on A Lil' Light ranks up there with his most inspired studio moments. Taking the basic template for minor-key hip hop, Madlib mirrors Perkins' poignant, unpredictable drawl with shuffling drums, fluttering mandolins, and B-movie strings weighted with nostalgia. Is the album more than an important blip on the soul music radar? Probably not -- I doubt D'Angelo is worried about losing his crown to this loose-larynxed trickster. But at the very least, Perkins proves his point about the power of the human voice: Without fallibility, there's no such thing as soul. Looks like it's back to the drawing board for the Autotuner R&D department.

 
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