Try, try again

Boston Globe, November 3, 2006

Since the days of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, the male-female duet has held a special place in R&B. Part of the mystique is that the great ones have been rare. More than just artistic compatibility, they demand a deep emotional connection, whether as lovers or friends, for the output to be affecting and sustained. A connection, in the words of the Ashford and Simpson hit, “solid as a rock.”

It’s small wonder that in today’s music landscape obsessed with individual star making and instant-gratification themes, such duos have all but disappeared. And that’s where Chante Moore and Kenny Lattimore come in. When they married five years ago, each had a solid track record making mainstream R&B. Now they are Kenny & Chante. They perform tomorrow at Boston’s annual “Steppin’ Out” gala, behind their brand-new double album, “Uncovered/Covered.”

It takes just a few moments on the phone with the couple to key into their easy rapport, which feels a lot like their music: mid-tempo, with impeccable production values. These are grown folks who make grown-folks music for people like themselves: middle-class professionals, especially black women, who dress well, even sexy, and go to church on Sundays. It’s a big demographic, though one the music industry often overlooks.

“I don’t know who’s listening anymore,” Moore says, and then goes on to answer her own question: “Young ladies in college, young men in college, women from 25 to 40, somewhere in there. Anybody who is introspective about their emotions.”

The contrast with today’s bump-and-grind radio fare is easy to see: “I’m very self-examining,” Moore goes on. “Music now doesn’t really give you that. Now it’s `Hi, nice to meet you, let’s do it, maybe I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Moore and Lattimore are well aware that their relationship is the exception, not the norm, in the entertainment business.

“People say `Oh, they’re so cute,’ but there’s so much more to our relationship,” Moore says. “Five years is a long time in this industry. We’re an example of something that can work. Marriage is sexy. Yes it is.”

People don’t take marriage seriously, she says: “It’s really not a commitment, more like a light agreement. Most people don’t want it to be necessarily forever. When really it’s so much more. It’s a covenant, it’s spiritual.”

Lattimore adds: “The power in our message is in the intimacy being real and things being revealed. That’s the part people are afraid of. People don’t want to uncover.”

Accordingly, “Uncovered,” the first disc of the new double album, is devoted to charting the ups and downs of Moore and Lattimore’s relationship. A duo version of Sade’s “No Ordinary Love” is sample fare, although most of the songs are their own. Donnell Jones, Musiq Soulchild, and Eric Roberson are among the R&B worthies who share writing or production credits.

“Covered,” the second disc, develops the other side of Kenny and Chante’s love: their devotion to God. Originally intended as a separate project, it’s a fine recording in the new subgenre sometimes called “urban praise and worship,” pioneered by gospel star Fred Hammond. The couple traveled to Dallas to work with Hammond, who produced “Covered” and co-wrote several songs.

The foray into gospel was great fun, Lattimore says. “Fun because it was brand new, like being a new artist going into a new market for the first time.”

The format might be new, but not the themes. Both artists are versed in religious material, particularly Moore, who grew up in a rigid church household in California.

“My father was a minister,” she says. “I wasn’t allowed to listen to R&B growing up. It was `unsaved’ music, that’s how we called it.”

As a solo artist in the ’90s, Moore always sprinkled religious themes into her albums, such as 1994’s “A Love Supreme.” Lattimore grew up in Washington, D.C. in a more liberal family and embraced Christianity as a teenager. He calls himself more of a “soul guy.” His musical references – Donny Hathaway, Aretha Franklin – are ones whose music transcends the secular-sacred divide.

The religious dimension that Kenny and Chante make explicit on their gospel disc is also what protects their R&B material from narcissism and cliche. No one wants to hear endlessly how in love two people are with each other. The religiosity gives the love songs purpose without which they would risk sounding trite.

Their message is also, the duo is quick to clarify, for people of all faiths. “It’s a glimpse into what we believe,” Moore says. “But everyone wants to be uplifted. My God or your God, it’s not a heavy thing.”

For Kenny and Chante, the spiritual life represents a healthy alternative to the fantasies that drive much of R&B today.

Moore says: “When I think of artists before us, their plight was in front of their faces all the time. It’s a strange state now. There’s a lot of things to distract us from reality. You can lose yourself in a fantasy, or you can face reality. We need hope and uplifting. We have to look to our faith. These times are not going to stay the same.”