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Guiding Lights

Raphael Saadiq looks back to the days of suit-and-tie R&B

Brand new, Raphael Saadiq is retro.

By Robbie Whelan | Posted 3/18/2009

Raphael Saadiq

Rams Head Live March 23.

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If it were 1968 and not 2009, every song on Raphael Saadiq's new album The Way I See It (Sony) would be a chart-topper. In his singing, songwriting, and producing sensibilities, Saadiq is equally conversant in Berry Gordy's Motown kitsch, Steve Cropper's Stax Records late-night blues, and Stevie Wonder's maudlin confessionals. His version of retro-soul--and the record is clearly an homage to the '60s rather than to the embarrassing love child of hip-hop and classic soul that a few years ago was called "neo-soul"--is more purist than anything on DapTone, the record label that churns out bouncy Sharon Jones soul records and employs the house band that backs Amy Winehouse on tour. Every snare drum tap rings with reverb like it was laid down in a cathedral, and his sparse guitar lines relive that forgotten role that the instrument used to have in R&B: an actual rhythm instrument, instead of the star of the show.

Saadiq, who in the 1990s fronted the R&B group Tony! Toni! Toné! (he was named Charlie Ray Wiggins back then), also has a foot firmly planted in the hip-hop world. He does guest spots with Q-Tip, Snoop Dogg, and Jay-Z. He has produced an impressive stable of neo-soul singers, including Angie Stone, D'Angelo, and Bilal. "I've been fortunate to have some really cool friends," he says by phone from his home in Los Angeles, between stops on his current national tour.In his first two quietly received solo albums, Instant Vintage and Ray Ray, both released earlier this decade, he dabbled in straight retro-soul and blaxploitation concept-album funk. His brand is as strong as any behind-the-scenes R&B ingenue. It's simultaneously puzzling and perfectly understandable that Saadiq's biggest solo album to date is so stylistically regressive.

"This music hits every demographic that I'm going for," he says. "Neo-soul to me is kind of boxed-off. It's not a sound for the masses. They've been hearing one-hit wonders for so long, so much trash. People want to latch on to music that can teach them something, that they can dance to."

The new record starts with "Sure Hope You Mean It," a sunnier, male reworking of the Supremes' "Where Did Our Love Go," complete with doo-wop backing vocals and an unobtrusive vibraphone line. Other tunes on See It--"100 Yard Dash" and the record's strongest track, "Staying in Love"--are bass line-driven grooves in the vein of Eddie Floyd's Stax singles or the Four Tops' "Reach Out (I'll Be There)," where you can hear the slightest mechanics of drum stick scraping snare and maybe even a bit of pre-produced vinyl fuzz. The orchestration on "Just One Kiss," a sleek, downbeat duet with Joss Stone, is all meandering strings and bright-idea xylophones, straight out of the Motown manual. "Never Give You Up" is Spinners Philly-style soul. "Kelly Ray" has Saadiq moaning in a desperate Al Green style sing-speak. All of it is great fun--as funky and butt-shaking as the original stuff, without a whole lot of new ideas or other baggage weighing it down.

"I've been listening to the same music all my life--Isaac Hayes, the Mamas and the Papas, James Brown, Motown, Stax," he says. "I just know what's in my own hard drive--a lot of drums, a lot of bass, a lot of suits and ties."

The guiding principal here is that perhaps a return to suit-and-tie soul--incidentally, Saadiq usually performs in a white three-piece with a skinny tie--is not at all regressive in 2009. In fact, Saadiq would insist, it's progress, because what passes for pop music today has strayed too far from the originality and sincerity of its roots. At the same time, this is coming from a guy who produced Ginuwine's The Life, an album that had just about everything that's wrong with modern R&B down pat. It's not clear if we should cheer an artist who is responsible for a good number of sappy, somewhat worthless records for having the good taste to salute his forbearers, or wonder what he was thinking when he made House of Music. In a way, the new album is redemptive.

Strangely, in this interview, Saadiq compares his music to modern politics. "You force so many terrible things on people, they get tired of it," he says of modern pop music. "We have a black president now."

The analogy, perhaps by accident, kinda works: President Obama claims to be a clear-eyed reformer, an antidote to the last however many years of Beltway ridiculousness. But he's come of age in an era when the reformers of the 1960s--the Kennedys, the Odettas of the world--are either passing on or at the end of their lines. Aretha Franklin sang at his inauguration, and the symbolism was lost on no one. Obama's models of fresh thinking may seem that way only because they are resurrections of what was considered progressive 40 years ago, almost the dark ages in internet time.

Likewise, Saadiq is reaching way back over his shoulder for inspiration. And with 20/20 hindsight even the most brazen homages to the past can seem fresh and new to a later generation.

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