The relationship between multi-instrumentalist Lorenzo Ferguson (aka Zo!) and The Foreign Exchange company appears to be ideal: the latter benefits from the contributions Ferguson makes to the label's artists and releases, while Zo! exploits in his solo work the ample vocal resources supplied by label associates like Sy Smith, Jeanne Jolly, and Phonte. The degree to which that quid pro quo principle manifests itself is well-documented on ManMade, the second Zo! long-player following 2010's SunStorm.
The music produced by the Detroit-born Ferguson is warm and soulful, a harmonious song-based style that calls to mind the classic sounds of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder (one even detects a hint of “What's Going On” in the opening moments of “Show Me the Way”). Awash in layers of pianos, synthesizers, beats, flutes, and vocals, a typical Zo! tune is uplifting and suffused with positivity. Ferguson doesn't use vocals as a mere add-on either; instead, the songs are fully developed vocal showcases where male and female singers contribute rich lead and background parts to the album's eleven songs. The early morning splendour of “Making Time,” for instance, is enhanced by the vocal interplay of Phonte and Choklate as well as an arrangement bolstered by horns, strings, and percussion.
ManMade departs from its relaxed R&B vibe in a couple of places, most noticeably in the funky “We Are on the Move,” which moves beyond its opening bass riff (vaguely reminiscent of “Another One Bites the Dust”) into a quasi-Kool & the Gang-styled jam featuring Eric Roberson in the lead vocal chair. While tougher, bass-prodded grooves propel “Count to Five” and “New In Town (Happy),” Gwen Bunn's sultry voice in the former and the nicely contrasting 1-O.A.K. and Carlitta Durand in the latter give the songs a smooth gloss.
A robotic voice might count in “The Train” but there's otherwise nothing artificial about the album's sunkissed opener, especially when it's elevated by Sy Smith's soulful croon and luscious keyboard sparkle (she returns at album's end to deliver an equally lovely turn in the eight-minute slow jam “Body Rock”). Zo!'s elegant music-making is also a perfect foil for Jeanne Jolly's gorgeous pipes in “Tell Me Something New,” but the same could be said for all of the singers who are so well-served by ManMade's settings.