Seeing it his way
For Raphael Saadiq, there’s nothing retro about the soul music he makes.
By Naila Francis
The fuss continues to bemuse Raphael Saadiq. Not that that a new album doesn’t warrant the attention.
But that “The Way I See It” is generating such surprise and in some cases, even fawning, over its old-school authenticity, has the former Tony! Toni! Ton! lead singer at a bit of a loss for words.
“Anybody who knows me knows that most of it is my musical makeup, my background,” says Saadiq of his third solo album, released in September on Columbia Records. “It’s not really a surprise for people who really know me. For me to do something like this, it makes sense.”
Yet what has been arresting critics and listeners alike is the seamlessness with which Saadiq has crafted an album of songs that plays like a dusted-off collection of the best in 1960s and ’70s soul and R&B. At a time when artists like Amy Winehouse, Duffy, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings and James Hunter are being lumped into the retro/revivalist camp, Saadiq eludes the throwback label, appearing instead to have been launched into present day from the hallowed halls of Motown and Stax, while making a few detours to Detroit and Philadelphia along the way.
Although he admits to the obvious influences of artists like The Temptations, Smokey Robinson and Sam Cooke, as well as harmony groups like The Stylistics, Saadiq nonetheless never set out to create a “vintage” sound. That kind of music, with its buoyant melodies, tight harmonies and shuffling horn- and tambourine-heavy rhythms, is so much a part of him that he struggles with such terms.
“I don’t think about any of these things that people write about,” he admits. “Every time I make a record, it’s adventurous for me, but I don’t think I did anything daring. Because I live inside of (this music), I’m not even paying attention to it.”
The 42-year-old recorded the album in his North Hollywood studio, where he handled drum, bass, guitar and background vocal duties in addition to writing, producing and arranging its 12 songs. His impressive collaborators include guest vocalists Joss Stone, Mexican balladeer Rocio Mendoza and Jay-Z (rapping, in a surprising turn, over a remix of The Delfonics-inspired track “Oh Girl”), as well as famed Motown arranger Paul Riser, The Funk Brothers’ Jack Ashford and Stevie Wonder, who plays harmonica on the sultry ballad “Never Give You Up.” Yet for Saadiq, the “feel” of each song was more important than polished precision or posturing.
“Some people record music and try to be so perfect, and it wasn’t about perfection. It’s about the way the music makes me feel and that’s the way it should come off on stage. People should get into it that way,” he says.
And there is something innately joyful about the music he’s created. Even a track like “Big Easy,” with its New Orleans-style horn flourishes and frenetic pace, becomes rhapsodic despite its sorrowful tale of searching for a lost child in the floods of Hurricane Katrina. Saadiq was inspired to write the song after watching Spike Lee’s documentary “When the Levees Broke.”
“It’s basically about somebody losing a family member,” he says. “I believe some of the New Orleans people, something they do at their funerals is have a big celebration. It’s the only place in America we really see that. The record’s a feel-good record. So ‘Big Easy’ is a sad song but it’s an uplifting kind of thing. The album has that rejoicing, uplifting type of feeling.”
Saadiq, born Charlie Ray Wiggins in Oakland, Calif., has been around music all of his life. He learned to play drums, bass and guitar by the age of 6 and was singing with a professional gospel group at 9. Upon graduating high school, he scored a touring gig with Prince and Sheila E. He found his own success in the late ’80s as a founding member of the neo-soul family band Tony! Toni! Ton! and later with the funk-R&B trio Lucy Pearl. But despite having released two successful solo albums — he snagged three Grammy nominations for 2002’s “Instant Vintage” without a major-label deal — he has become known more as a producer in recent years for his work with artists like D’Angelo, Mary J. Blige, Whitney Houston, Joss Stone and John Legend, with whom he appears at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby on Friday.
“The Way I See It,” however, marks a career-defining moment.
“I kind of see this as one of my best because I’m growing every day and it just shows the growth,” says Saadiq. “I do think this music has a better chance of (longevity). It resonates in so many different genres and so many different people’s lives. It’s had a life of its own; all over the world, it’s sort of a proven deal.”
Whether it inspires nostalgia or a new appreciation for the roots of R&B, he believes what he’s offering is a moment in time.
“I just wanted to play some of the things that touched me as a kid,” says Saadiq, who grew up paying more attention to the musicians behind the Motown sound than the singers themselves. “If you’re a kid and you’re 7 years old and you’re hearing my music right now because your parents are playing it, when you’re older, it’s something you can return to and reflect back on and enjoy. Or it’s something you can enjoy right now, sitting and reflecting with your grandmother.
“It’s a conversation piece,” he says. “Everybody can get something out of it.”
– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer