Civilized is right. It's Martin Luther King Day, and Urban Mystic is decked out in amber shades, calfskin jacket, and tweed fedora. He's one of the featured performers in both cities' MLK birthday celebrations, and he and his crew -- three backup singers and two of his three brothers, plus a couple of friends and his business manager -- have a full day ahead. Despite the plush whip and rock-star itinerary, the mood in the car is more Inside the Studio than Girls Gone Wild.
On first meeting Urban Mystic -- born Brandon Williams, called Urban by his friends -- it's hard to not be a little shocked by his size. Album covers and their contents can be deceiving: A peek at Ghetto Revelations, his debut on Miami's SOBE Entertainment label, reveals a sly, narrow-eyed player looking out at the world the way a cheetah sizes up a gazelle. In person, though, he's about five-foot-five and baby-faced, far smaller than I imagined.
Before the limo ride, I met Williams around noon at Fort Lauderdale's Sunland Park Elementary. It's the finish line for Broward's massive MLK Day parade, and Williams is scheduled for a 1 p.m. appearance.
"It's funny, because I was just telling my friends I went to school here, and my mom worked here," he says. "The first time I learned to swim was in that pool." And here, backstage, I'm thinking that wasn't too long ago. After a gushing introduction and a cheer from the field of onlookers, he takes the stage, and everything changes.
Old soul are the only words to describe what emerges when he moves in front of the crowd. Williams handles the mic like one shakes hands with a familiar friend, slipping right into his set flanked by three young backup vocalists and an instrumental track. His sound is almost timeless -- pure libidinous R&B delivered with a streetwise, hip-hop sensibility that renders it smooth and rugged at the same time. A couple of midtempo songs; a cover of his idol, '70s R&B master Bobby Womack's "Woman's Gotta Have It"; and then Williams drops the bomb: the first single off Ghetto Revelations, "Where Were You."
Folks recognize this one, and they should. Written by Mystic and his veteran production partner, Kaygee (formerly of hip-hop hitmakers Naughty by Nature and who also produced New Jersey crooner Jaheim's Ghetto Love), "Where Were You" has been getting airplay all over 99 JAMZ and HOT 105. And, even after its debut in November, the video is still getting ranked on BET's 106 and Park top ten countdown. Like an R&B "American Pie," the song strives for a kind of timelessness, pinning passing youth to an unforgettable moment.
"Where were you/When you first heard Biggie and Pac and knew you were blessed with the best of hip-hop/When your team came back with the ring/With your crew rolling through, you could do anything."
Williams closes the set, thanks the hometown crowd, and we hustle to the waiting limo. A woman and her 5-year-old daughter tail us for blocks, chasing us down at an intersection. Williams leans out the window, smiling, and signs an autograph for the little girl.
"I'm looking for 'Where Were You' to be one of those classics, you know?" he says as we pull onto I-95. The old soul he brandished on stage moments ago is gone, replaced by a young man laughing easily with his friends, cruising in a pimp ride.
"Oh yeah, I've gotten used to these," he says of the ride. "They pick me up from my mom's house in the limo at 5 a.m. to get on the airplane. I don't care if it's a limo or not; I still don't wanna get up at 5 a.m."
Since his album dropped in November, Williams has toured from L.A. to Atlanta to St. Louis to New York, "literally living out of a suitcase," he says. It's tiring work, but he understands it's necessary to get where he wants to be. "We brought the album out last quarter last year, so that gives us four quarters to work with before the new album," he says, plotting his market attack. "That means at least three or four singles." Each of those singles will have been written and produced by a different team, including pop-soul legend El Debarge, Kaygee, and Williams himself.