To my ears, most contemporary rhythm and blues music, with its sterile production standards and lame hip-hop beats, sounds boring and predictable. But one artist in the R&B arena, Raphael Saadiq, is doing something a bit new by going retro. Saadiq is a definite throwback to the golden era of soul singers from the 1960s and 1970s such as Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Not that he exactly sounds exactly like either one of those guys, or is just rehashing “old school” sounds, but the influences are definitely there and Saadiq is doing fun and inventive things with them. Listen to this music and smile: real soul is back.
Raphael Saadiq is not a brand new artist who has just emerged from the mists of the blogosphere. He has been recording solo albums for the better part of a decade, and before that he was a member of the popular group Tony Toni Tone (when he went by the name of Raphael Wiggins) in the 1980s and early 90s. He was also a member of the R&B “supergroup” Lucy Pearl (a band that also included singers from En Vogue and A Tribe Called Quest) who released a highly acclaimed album in 2000.
I liked the Tony Toni Tone albums a lot; catchy upbeat songs, sweet harmonies, and some soul-stirring ballads. But as good at those albums were, I think Saadiq’s solo stuff may even be better. I’ve heard terms like “Neo Soul” and “Gospel-delic” used to describe his music, but even those terms only hint at the depth of his songs. Categorizing music is always a tricky if not futile exercise, and Saadiq blends many different styles into his songs to further complicate such a task. There are indeed elements of soul, gospel, pop, and hip-hop in the mix, but the end result is something that sounds fresh and invigorating.
Saadiq’s first solo album, Instant Vintage, in 2002, combined those vintage soul sounds with more contemporary influences. Saadiq also showed off impressive songwriting chops. His following album, Ray Ray, was even more of a step towards capturing the 70s vibe, but to my ears the songs weren’t as strong as those on his debut. In 2008 he roared back with The Way I See It, an exemplary collection of songs that earned several Grammy nominations. Earlier this year he released Stone Rollin’, another solid set of tunes, some funky and some sly. From the opening song, the pounding “Heart Attack,” to the moving final song, “The Answer,” the heartfelt performances never falter. With this album and his previous ones, Raphael Saadiq is offering lively bursts of soul that need to be heard by more people.