Raphael Saadiq might just be soul’s savior in these blighted times. As lead singer and songwriter of Tony! Toni! Toné!, he and his brothers fused 1960s soul, 1970s funk, and then-burgeoning 1980s hip-hop into a new genre. Along with Teddy Riley and New Edition, Tony! Toni! Toné! ushered in what was first called new jack swing, which then developed into neo-soul.
It was a hard-edged, rockier sound that nevertheless had the slick pop songcraft of the Motown sound. Horns and string sections were as present as they were in 1970s Philly soul but the bombast came in shorter, more clipped bursts than before, and the saxophone had to contend with turntable scratching and loops. Singers still talked about love but were less oblique about sex than even Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” and there was now a place for the occasional curse word.
Neo-soul’s acolytes flocked to Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, Brand New Heavies, Joi, Jamiroquai, and other artists. While its commercial success has been limited, the genre’s influence is incalculable. In the late 1990s, Mariah Carey made it mainstream to invite hip-hop artists to collaborate on her songs, but the new jack swing had been in effect for a half-decade by then.
So, the genre occupies an odd place. It’s at once so hopelessly retro that its production appeals probably more to baby boomers than to their children and the movement that’s pushing R&B forward sonically and lyrically.
Since the mid-1980s, Saadiq—formerly Charlie Ray Wiggins, and then Raphael Wiggins after that—has been at the epicenter of that forward/backward momentum. When he and his brothers went their separate ways in the 1990s, Wiggins changed his name to Saadiq—mostly, it seems, because it sounds cool; or maybe the brothers really hate each other that much—and went solo. He produced and co-wrote songs for the cream of the “alternative” soul crop: D’Angelo, TLC, Macy Gray, John Legend, Mary J. Blige, Jill Scott. In 2000, he formed—with Dawn Robinson (lead singer of En Vogue) and Ali Shaheed Muhammed (DJ/producer of A Tribe Called Quest)—neo-soul’s first supergroup: Lucy Pearl. In 2007, he produced Joss Stone’s third album, and continues to collaborate all over the R&B map. Where soul seemed to be progressing most fervently, you’d look beneath the surface and find Saadiq’s name somewhere in the credits.
I said earlier that neo-soul wavers between its 1960s roots and its futuristic tendencies, and that’s nowhere more evident than on Saadiq’s (surprisingly few) solo projects. I’ve said my piece about 2008’s fantastic The Way I See It, which, as The New Yorker emphasizes, “has echoes of the Temptations, Booker T., and Bill Withers, but it is completely its own thing—so retro it’s avant.”
His first solo album, however, is so avant that it’s hard to call it soul. Even Robert Christgau, who likes 2002’s Instant Vintage as much as I do, seems befuddled by it: “Concentrate on it or fuck to it—anything in between and it'll seem too hookless for pop, too quiet for funk, too slight for words.” Saadiq took six years between the last Tony! Toni! Toné! and his first official solo project, and it shows. He throws everything into the kitchen sink—all pop genres are seemingly present, all modes of studio experimentation are in effect. Jazz plays a more prominent role than elsewhere in his work. So does surf rock. (I’m serious.) Songs have a habit of developing into multi-movement affairs. The lyrics range all over the place—along with the soul standard-bearing love songs and come-ons, there are impressionistic portraits of family life, autobiographical riffs, an ode to marijuana (that’s not even sung by him), a heart-to-heart letter to an old friend who’s going down the wrong path, a complicated take on what he love/hates about his hometown of Oakland, street swaggers. It could have been called The Many Moods of Raphael Saadiq. It’s made under the implicit assumption that he might not get another chance to make a record of his own. It’s sonically unified by Saadiq’s production design—beats are ever-present but I wouldn’t call it danceable; it’s full of sound but no instrument takes dominance for long in the mix. It’s a contemplative rather than body-shaking soul record, which might be an oxymoron. Like Common’s Electric Circus, which came out the same year, it’s trying to explode the boundaries of his given genre. It doesn’t entirely succeed as a collection of songs—but, then, neither does Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key Life or Prince’s Sign O’ the Times. Listened to as a whole, though, Instant Vintage is mesmerizing.
Still, there aren’t hit singles lurking in it. His next two records—the barely-released Raphael Saadiq as Ray Ray and The Way I See It—swing the pendulum the other way. Hits galore, though Ray Ray tries to split the difference between Instant Vintage’s weirdness and The Way I See It’s ultra-pop vibe. Still, the latter remains neo-soul and not just soul—Jay-Z makes an appearance; the background singers in “Calling” and “Keep Marchin’” sound oddly robotic; “Let’s Take A Walk” includes a sample of James Brown’s “I Can’t Stand Myself (When You Touch Me)”; “Sometimes” sounds like a b-side to a Tony! Toni! Toné! album. It’s retro, it’s modern, it’s Saadiq.
Everything above reflects on Saadiq’s production and composition, but none of it would work if he wasn’t one hell of a musician. His high, playful tenor can swing from squeals to coos, baby talk to struts, without losing focus. He plays most of the instruments on his albums, with a chiming, crisp guitar sound that’s effervescent. His bass playing is simply superb—melodic, warm, and jaunty. His musicianship is malleable, adapting itself equally well to Joss Stone’s disco pop, Macy Gray’s freakouts, and D’Angelo’s thick rumbling hip-hop.
All of neo-soul’s concerns, pretensions, contradictions, and extraordinary skills get played out in Saadiq’s career. If he’s not the genre’s central figure, he’s at least a great representative of it. So, after the jump, I’ve assembled a little Saadiq retrospective, which also serves to trace his genre’s trajectory.
All songs are available for download until 6 September 2009. Enjoy.
1) Tony! Toni! Toné!, “If I Had No Loot (Tony Toni Tone)” (1993)
The perfect fusion of hip-hop and R&B, and one of the best pure pop songs of the 1990s. Also, it holds the distinction of being the only “woe-is-me-I’m-so-famous” pop song that doesn’t make me cringe.
2) D’Angelo, “(Untitled) How Does It Feel” (2000)
In which D’Angelo and Saadiq mimic Prince, down to the stutter-step beats, searing guitar, and damn-near-atonal screeching at the end. An edited version of the song help make D’Angelo a star; this here’s the full, slow-boil thing. From Voodoo, which is as ambitious as is Instant Vintage.
3) Lucy Pearl, “Without You” (2001)
There were too many big egos for this band to last long, and the collaboration only produced one self-titled album. But what an album. As with Tony! Toni! Toné!, Saadiq favors a midtempo and moving the crowd. As straightforward of a love song as he’s capable of, it gets the wallflowers onto the dancefloor but still has a slurred, droning guitar fiddling with its basic sentiments. Maybe Saadiq and Robinson’s finest vocal performances on the record.
4) Macy Gray, “Don't Come Around” (2001)
From Gray’s underrated 2001 album The ID, this breakup ballad brims with melancholia. Gray and Saadiq co-wrote this narrative of a woman who’s still in love with her man, but wise enough to know that “let’s just be friends” rarely works out in real life. It simmers with that painful recognition, and the low-swinging horns and slow tempo gets that heartbreak across. As lush as this is, this is—believe it or not—one of the most sonically sparse songs on the album.
5) Raphael Saadiq, “Charlie Ray” and “Faithful” (2002)
The two poles of Instant Vintage—experimental and pop. “Charlie Ray” has two vocal tracks that are delayed, and one may be pitched a little higher than the other. The guitar comes from the Hawaiian surf. There’s no real chorus. And it seems to be a fond memory from Saadiq’s early childhood (hence the title’s use of his real name), even though it’s punctuated by his dad stepping on his hand. “Faithful,” on the other hand, just brings the funk, skanky guitar and all. “I won’t cheat on you, like I did before,” is the going them, bringing it right in line with countless ex-playas from R&B. Even if you don’t quite believe him.
6) Joss Stone, “Baby, Baby, Baby” (2007)
Saadiq produced Stone’s third album, Introducing Joss Stone, and his neo-soul fingerprints smudge the entire record. (Stone would sing duet with him on “Just One Kiss” and backup on “Staying in Love,” on his 2008 album The Way I See It, as well.) High-energy, chirping and crystal-clear guitars, Stone’s sultry and deep soprano, and that killer beat make this one an instant disco classic. The swooping, surging string section doesn’t overload it, but instead fits right in.
7) Raphael Saadiq, “Staying in Love” (2008)
The Way I See It is full of perfect songs but this stomp-out soul rocker is my favorite. Those ringing guitars wind themselves around and around the bassline, and the whole song snaps to attention. With a call-and-response pattern in the vocals, the song tells how a couple falls into and out of love—with all the puppylove and lies—in less than three minutes, with a snappy rhythm guitar bridge of-sorts. It sounds like Motown but somehow a step removed. It doesn’t even bother me that the chorus doesn’t rhyme.