As one half of the production duo Darkroom Productions, Juan Donovan has produced with his partner Jamal Roberts some of today’s hottest artists. That list includes R Kelly, Wale, Young Money, Maino, JellyRoll, 24Hrs (Royce Rizzy), Brick Squad, G-Unit, Bad Boy, and more. The duo also won multiple awards for its phenomenal work on HBO’s classic hit series “The Wire”, which garnered them featured in major publications such as FADER, The New York Times, VIBE, and dozens more. It’s not surprising then that Juan Donovan would want to drop a record that’s as much a personal statement as a collection of stunning songs. His long anticipated debut album entitled “Merlot & Marijuana” conveys a sense of summation, as Donovan deploys a lavish roster of all-star talent in a broad overview of R&B, and urban music flavors in general.
There is no stylistic redlining on Juan Donovan’s block, where contemporary R&B, RnBass, Soul, Trap, and Ambient all get credit – sometimes in imaginative combinations that occupy the same song. The album’s main strengths are a thorough smattering of variety that guarantees almost infinite replay value, and a plethora of stylish vocal thrust to go with Donovan’s brilliant compendium of styles and luxurious production touch.
Wonderful musicality says an awful lot –as Donovan doesn’t make beats as much as he produces songs – and the high points on “Merlot & Marijuana” are brimming with it. The opening song “Work” (feat. Devon Hill), which drops in after the intro, is a slow, bracing, potentially influential amalgam, in which Donovan weaves yearning choral motifs, around and over busy hi-hats and pianos, then turns up the melodic juice with some soulful crooning by Devon Hill. Donovan’s role on this album can be likened to that of a high class tailor who chooses the cloth then cuts it to perfection.
He shines with his ability to not just make human voices sound enticing, but ensures that together with the music they become irresistibly captivating. With his eyes, heart and musical mind always fully focused on the project, the occurrence of a perfect match between vocals and instrumentals, is repeated on every track on “Merlot & Marijuana”.
Both “Presence” (feat. Tatmancoop x Shayla) and “All Over Me” (feat. MKHL x Aliché) are such brilliantly constructed pieces of music. The melodies are infectious as the vocals transport you to a world of slow groove with some awesome arrangements.
Every element of “Fireworks” (feat. Aliché) has been carefully thought out. Every frame of its construction from the synth interludes, the vocals, and the ability to let the song simmer in its instrumental with Aliché putting in a stellar vocal performance.
Juan Donovan is able to arrange and compose songs to fit any sort of mood. His musical knowledge is all on display with this project, and can be savored on the piano-driven instrumental “Arturo Fuente”. Chrxstal’s mesmerizing vocals are in full force on “Running On E” (feat. Chrxstal). This mellow groove is pretty intoxicating with its finger-snapping beat.
For me personally, “Roses” (feat. Adria Jenée x KenTheMan) is one of the album’s absolute highlights. The instrumentation, especially the bass lines and thumping kick drum are intensely manipulating on the senses. The track also has an edgy urban flavor as the rapped lines perfectly contrast the soft melodic vocals and lush production.
To be fair, “Lost In A Minute” (feat. Danni Jackson x M.A.V.), is pretty much locked into the same hierarchy. It’s hard to imagine anyone listening to this downtempo groove on replay and not attempt to sing along with the chorus at least once.
Juan Donovan clearly wanted to bring together some of the finest voices in the game as well as compose and arrange some fantastic pieces of music. Many songs here play testimony to that fact. Sometimes he allows those voices to reach out on their own, as on the smooth and soulful “Win Your Love” (feat. Danni Jackson).
Even as I listen to the closing instrumental track, “Indulge”, I can appreciate the amount of work that has gone into these 11 tracks, in what is one of the most listenable R&B and urban music albums I have heard in a very long while.
Overall these tracks present a treasure trove of skills sets from Juan Donovan and his collaborators. It may take a few listens to fully grasp the source of each groove, the choice of voices, the song structures and the arrangements, but you will connect to it on the very first listening. And that’s a sign of great music – something which captures you instantly, and then allows you to unpack and unfold it for deeper, sumptuous and endless listening pleasure!