Picks and Pans Review: Free

UPDATED 04/07/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 04/07/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT

Chico DeBarge (Alove)

On his fine fifth album, Chico DeBarge makes neosoul as smooth as his clean-shaven head. Blending the lush romanticism of Maxwell with the hot-butter sexuality of D'Angelo, DeBarge creates the perfect soundtrack for a night of cuddling under the covers. Like many of today's R&B Romeos, the singer—whose older siblings comprised the '80s group DeBarge—evokes Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye throughout this disc. "Smile" is an atmospheric, almost trippy ballad that could have been on Wonder's Fulfillingness' First Finale, while the sleepy, sensual "Style" sounds as if it could have come from Gaye's I Want You period. Produced and almost entirely written by DeBarge—who recorded the CD at his home studio in Grand Rapids, Mich.—Free has a warm, personal vibe tailor-made for lovers.

BOTTOM LINE: Dreamy DeBarge

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