In "Doing What I Can," the opening track of Raphael Saadiq's proper solo debut, Instant Vintage, he gives you a taste of just what he's about to bring to the table: samples, stories, bass lines, strings, blues, joy and heaps upon heaps of soul. Journalist voices uttered in spun sound clips paint a brief biographical picture of this 42-year-old modern day Otis, Sam or Marvin. And yet, for some reason, this introduction is wholly necessary.
When enthusiasm is shared with strangers to his genius, it usually tends to go something like this:
"Yeah. Well, he was in a group called Tony! TonI! Tone! Remember that song "Feels Good"? Ya know, it feeeels gooood. This is like early '90s."
"Orrr, he was in a group called Lucy Pearl with the lady from En Vogue. Their jam was called "Dance Tonight." I wanna daaannce tonight, I wanna toooaast tonight, I spend my money tonniiight. Dawn of 2000ish?"
"He produced that Joss Stone record."
"OH NICE! Love her."
No, you see, this man is a deeply talented creative force to be reckoned with in the 21st century. His creativity is inspiring and, although we've waited for something as substantially radical as Vintage (Ray Ray didn't quite floor people in 2004) for some time now, he has delivered another dense soul classic to be listened to, celebrated, sung along to, made love to and praised for years and generations to come.
Rarely does a musician come along who seems to embody something unique. A genre-defying artist who may be taking notes and inspiration from all kinds of influences (Gladys Knight and the Pips, A Tribe Called Quest, and Stevie Wonder to name a few) but has actually soaked it all up and spat out something beautifully different. He's also landed in a vague new genre on some kind of healthy kick with the likes of Adele, Duffy, Amy, and Alicia touting bygone R&B and getting some hefty sales out of it. Perhaps thanks to Amy's idiocy - just sayin'.
Raphael soars above these little girls and laughs a stoney, wizened chuckle. He's also produced and collaborated with some of their more substantial peers: TLC, D'Angelo, Kelis, Mary J., Jill and Erykah. He employs some heavy-hitters to guest on his latest particularly thrown back gospeldelic joint, The Way I See It. The Rebirth Brass Band adds another layer of old school funk to my favorite all-out jam on "Big Easy," Jay-Z doesn't ruin but re-envisions a sad but unduly solidly crafted track called "Oh Girl," and Joss Stone lends her smokey pipes to a joyous and triumphant "Just One Kiss."
But out there in the front with three happy, shiny gems of '50s-infused openers we get "Sure Hope You Mean It," "100 Yard Dash," and "Keep Marchin'." Standouts on their own, for sure, but like several others on this album, there's an undeniable groove. It's hard not to bob your head, snap your fingers and start shaking. They're happy, they vary in pace from mid-tempo to balls-out-boogie and it's impossible to think about much more than the way Mr. Saadiq sees it. The way he sees it, love is something to hold on to, life is something you can't let defeat you, good times are something to celebrate and a kiss is something to roll around in.
The achievement that is T.W.I.S.I. has not escaped a few critics and tastemakers. The record has garnered three Grammy nominations: Best R&B Album, Best Traditional R&B Performance for "Love That Girl," and Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals for his collaboration with Stevie Wonder on "Never Give You Up." Yes, Mr. Wonder. Fascinatingly, though, the legend does not croon a note, only breathes them to life with a harmonica. His presence is appreciated and classy on a deep-in-the-record sleeper song.
iTunes, which apparently has an Editorial Team, named The Way I See It their choice for 2008's Best Album. Those are some britches, Raphael. Please just keep on keepin' on your righteous soul path.
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