Album of the week
Album: Raphael Saadiq, The Way I See It (Columbia)
Friday 27 February 2009
When he joined his brother and cousin in R&B trio Tony! Toni! Toné, Charlie Ray Wiggins sensibly decided he could do with a more exotic name, but only acquired it in stages, becoming first Raphael Wiggins before achieving a more persuasive cachet as Raphael Saadiq, the name under which he has become one of R&B's most sought-after producers.
Saadiq earned his studio spurs securing Grammy wins for D'Angelo, going on to work with every soul diva from Whitney and Erykah to Macy and Mary J, and more recently helping to establish John Legend, Amp Fiddler, Anthony Hamilton and Joss Stone as players. Now it's Raphael's turn, securing a major distributor after becoming the first artist without a big-label deal to be nominated for five Grammies in one year.
The Way I See It finds Saadiq back in the territory he finds most comfortable, the classic Sixties soul style invented by Motown's backroom geniuses; and it says something about him and that label that it's a better expression of the Motown aesthetic than anything the company has produced for at least the past decade. The way I see it, it's his very own love-letter to an era when R&B wasn't embarrassed about having soul. There are diversions – "Oh Girl" is an exercise in smooch-soul harmonies, and "Big Easy" is less New Orleans than Miami thanks to a delicious Little Beaver-esque guitar vamp – but from the moment "Sure Hope You Mean It" opens with a lovely, languid lope borrowed from "How Sweet It Is", it's clear where Saadiq's deepest affinities lie.
He's not the first to be influenced by Motown, but few have managed to retro-fabricate that classic sound so accurately, nor in as many subtle variations. There are propulsive Holland-Dozier-Holland-style grooves, such as "Let's Take a Walk" and the infectious "Staying in Love", and the relaxed, swingy groove of "Keep Marchin'" is a dead ringer for a Smokey Robinson production, circa 1964. But the doowop stylings of "Calling" echo right back to Motown's late Fifties R&B roots, while both "Love That Girl" and the Joss Stone duet "Just One Kiss" have the poise of the David Ruffin-era Temptations.
"Never Give You Up" could be an out-take from Marvin Gaye's I Want You, until halfway through, when Raphael announces "I'd like to invite Mr Stevie Wonder to my album" – whereupon that trademark harmonica transforms the song into a gorgeous Wonder-esque ballad. The only duff note comes with a second version of "Oh Girl", ruined by Jay-Z's rap. But if you hanker after classic Motown, it'll not spoil your enjoyment of one of the year's most impressive and engaging albums.
Pick of the album: 'Sure Hope You Mean It', 'Staying In Love', 'Keep Marchin'', 'Big Easy', 'Just One Kiss', 'Never Give You Up'
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