There are undoubtedly some interesting parallels to be drawn between the classic Dru Hill, that of silky harmonies and squishy, finger-snapping beats, and the harder-edged incarnation to be found on InDRUprendence Day, which gamely attempts to center itself in the contemporary milieu without abandoning the group’s signature values. Like so many hip-hop-inflected artists struggling to find a middle ground between street hardness and lovey-dovey mood music, their new sound reflects a processed digestion of the current state of things, from some dabs of Auto-Tune to busy, computer-fashioned beats, while never fully giving itself over to these fads.
As their Wikipedia entry shrewdly notes, Dru Hill were a kind of happy medium in mid-‘90s R&B, split between the teddy-bear soul of Boyz II Men and the grittier, though just as cheesy, work of Jodeci. Both of those groups are now long gone, and the comparatively primitive scene that fostered them has given way to a more diverse landscape, splintered into niche markets and offering endless alternatives. Dru Hill, 10 years past their heyday and dormant since 2002, are at an immediate disadvantage in this kind of setting. It doesn’t help that they last surfaced in a Spinal Tap-style moment via a hilariously cringe-inducing YouTube video, which captured a radio-station meltdown during an on-air reunion attempt.
That incident signaled the departure of founding member Woody, who had decided, without warning, to embark on a mission from God. He’s been replaced here by contest winner Antwuan “Tao” Simpson, and it’s probably at least somewhat to this newcomer’s credit that it’s hard to notice the difference. Opener “Shut It Down” announces the group’s return with uncharacteristic aplomb, a ground-shaking banger that sounds strange but not entirely false. This hints at a slightly tougher stance for the group, with songs that incorporate the churning, frantic style of today’s maximalist producers, but it doesn’t mean that their core sweetness has evaporated. A lot of Dru Hill’s songs are still sugary declarations, but they’re never overtly puerile. They reflect a gospel upbringing and an inherent decency that hasn’t soured, even when a key member is most famous for unleashing “The Thong Song” on the world.
This means that while InDRUpendence Day may play at toughness, adhering to today’s fashions as completely as the group did to the simpler whims of the ‘90s, it never postures. These values come into full flower on a track like “Rule the World,” a bombastic cover of the Take That song that’s as blindly tacky as it is queasily enjoyable. The album may not push boundaries or produce any major hits, but it’s at least a faithful attempt at keeping the group’s ethos intact.