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TBTS Reviews: Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin’

July 16, 2011

Twenty years ago, Raphael Saadiq was a regular presence in the pop and R&B Top 40 as a member of Tony Toni Tone. To my ears, labeling the vast majority of that era’s R&B as “soul music” is a misnomer, as the hits of those days, especially their offensively artificial drum sounds, are bloodless and sterile and, well, soulless. Put it this way—I doubt most folks who want a strong shot of “classic soul” are going to turn to circa 1990 mainstays like early Mariah Carey, Bodyguard soundtrack Whitney Houston, or a slew of interchangeable male crooners (Keith Sweat, Johnny Gill, and the like). What can a 1991 Ralph Tresvant album give you that you can’t get in purer form by going back 15 more years to Curtis Mayfield’s and Marvin Gaye’s solo masterpieces, or 20-25 more years to the Motown and Stax heydays?

All this is to say that Raphael Saadiq’s wonderful output in recent years is all the more rewarding because of its arguably low likelihood. I can’t think of a single other R&B chart-topper from the early 90s who has maintained much artistic relevance (and Mariah Carey aside, they haven’t exactly been burning it up commercially either) in the new century. Inversely, Saadiq found a new way forward by looking backward, seemingly realizing that he couldn’t credibly position himself as a contemporary of the new generation of male R&B crooners. On 2008’s The Way I See It, Saadiq clearly demonstrated that he had been studying at the feet of the Philly and Detroit soul masters. That record successfully distanced Saadiq from the questionable 90s production aesthetic that characterized his early career. It was a fine, enjoyable throwback soul record and, as it turns out, a harbinger of even better things to come.

Put simply, Stone Rollin’ is just stunningly good, and Saadiq now stands alone on the high ground he occupies on the musical landscape. Much more so than on The Way I See It, I hear on Stone Rollin’ the grit and electric rawness of Memphis, which effectively balances the Philadelphia silk and Detroit polish. There’s a lot of stellar guitar work and pounding drums that makes me suspect that Saadiq’s live set these days would be intense and LOUD. Several tracks are up-tempo—no overreliance on the earnest ballads here—serving as a solid, accurate reflection of a time when rock-and-roll and rhythm-and-blues were basically the same thing, and it was all party music. Speaking of variety, there’s even an honest-to-God country-blues track, “Day Dreams,” with some sizzling steel-guitar wizardry from Robert Randolph. Finally, Saadiq’s multi-instrumental musicianship rivals what you’d find on Prince’s, and perhaps even Stevie Wonder’s, finest one-man-band records of days gone by, with several Stone Rollin’ tracks featuring Saadiq playing all or nearly all of the parts.

Every track on this record is a keeper, and there are hardly even any weak moments, but “Go to Hell” stands out even among the rest. Time will tell, of course, but I think this track compares favorably with the greatest “message soul” ever recorded (What’s Goin’ On, Curtis, Superfly, etc.), and I hope it reaches the wide audience it deserves. With a boost from this gorgeous, inspiring, magical track, Stone Rollin’ becomes not only one of the most enjoyable albums of the year, but also an enriching experience. This is the kind of album that can lift you up when you’ve fallen down.

  1. Graham permalink
    July 21, 2011 7:49 am

    This man is a genius… Pure musical talent and he is playing the ITV iTunes festival in London!!! Have a look at some of his performances here:

    You have to go see someone when they have achievements like playing bass for prince when he was 18!!!

  2. Lloyd permalink
    July 21, 2011 9:05 am

    Thanks for the comment and link, Graham. I’ll check out the iTunes performance!


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