Justin Guarini’s self-titled debut offers up a slew of by-the-numbers R&B tracks that follow the latest R&B trends. From the acoustic guitar-driven Latin flair of the opening number, “One Heart Too Many,” to the slinky urban groove of tracks like “I Saw Your Face,” Guarini’s voice fits snugly into the proven formulas of more seasoned crooners like Brian McKnight and R. Kelly. Guarini’s surprisingly non-cloying smoothness on “Be a Heartbreaker” excuses lines like “Gotta make a down payment on my karma/‘Cos I know I’ve caused so much drama.” Though the album is weighed down by the kind of drab balladry one expects from the “A.I.” cookie-cutter confectioners (“How Will You Know,” “Condition of My Heart,” “Thinking of You”), the stuttering beats of “Sorry” and the Jacko-esque harmonies of “If You Wanna” wouldn’t sound out of place on that other Justin’s album. Unlike Kelly Clarkson’s niche, which has proven difficult to determine, Guarini’s calling is obvious and his album is a more cohesive effort than Clarkson’s own Thankful. Even when Guarini strays from the predictable R&B material, he pulls it off: “Inner Child” is a slice of sugary pop/rock that nicely displays the elasticity of his vocal chords, while the minimalist arrangement of “Unchained Melody” (including a drum loop reminiscent of Alicia Keys’s “Fallin’”) lends the track a simplicity that actually makes it work. Clarkson may have the bigger pipes (and the “A.I.” title), but her curly-coifed runner-up wins the album race…by a hair.
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