Tony! Toni! Tone! Frontman’s Soul Responsibility

Raphael Saadiq sees no need to update the old R&B playbook.

Raphael Saadiq just wasn't made for these times. Then again, maybe he was. To call him an "old soul" would hit the bull's-eye dead on. He prefers Stevie Wonder over Lil Wayne, Booker T & the MGs over G Unit, and Gamble & Huff over Def Jam. Out of step he may be, but not out of touch. His résumé boasts collaborations with R&B heavyweights like Mary J. Blige, Erykah Badu, D'Angelo, and Joss Stone, all of whom have called upon Saadiq for production duties when they need something a little more "retro."Obviously Saadiq is not dismissive of today's R&B, otherwise he wouldn't agree to work with those artists. If anything, Saadiq likes to think of himself as a "keeper of the flame"—he is to R&B what the Roots are to hip-hop, upholding the spirit of a genre as it existed in its heyday decades ago."There's a lot of music out there today that I like," Saadiq says via phone, his speaking voice as unhurried as Sunday morning. "Mostly indie rock and soulful rappers, y'know. I like Santigold and Kings of Leon, people that just get up there and... I don't know, it just seems like back in the day people were willing to take more risks and be themselves. Nowadays it just seems like everybody's in the same army, y'know?"Whatever army it is, Saadiq is not a member. For 20 years, first as the frontman for new-jack-swing group Tony! Toni! Toné! and later as a solo artist and in-demand producer, he's been retrofitting yesterday's sounds for modern ears (check out the lush Aretha Franklin–supper club feel he supplied Mary J. Blige with for her song "I Found My Everything"). He's well aware of what era he lives in, though, and this in many ways makes him the only artist able to release an album of '60s/'70s replicas that still sounds current.That set of Motownish jams, 2008's The Way I See It, is undoubtedly the finest retro-soul effort since 2005's Keep Reachin' Up by Nicole Willis & the Soul Investigators. Thirteen tracks of unabashedly old-school R&B,The Way I See It sounds weathered, but not just because of the production. Like Saadiq himself, the record has an unhurried, uncompetitive pace; unlike most contemporary R&B, the songs aren't jacked up to ecstatic highs or cartoonish lows. From the toe-tapping beats to his smooth-as-whipped-cream falsetto, the record harkens back to a feel-good era. Just as "My Girl" and "Just My Imagination" seem effortless, so does The Way I See It. Most will call it "retro," but Saadiq prefers to call it his "downtown" record."I was picturing that kind of a dress-up night," he says. "Like when you'd get dressed up to go see Cab Calloway or Duke Ellington, y'know, in Harlem or wherever. So I wanted it to be that kind of a record that made people feel like they were going out that night and feeling good."Like Badu, Saadiq is an analog sage in a digital age—a throwback, if you will. And he's not ashamed to admit it. "I am a throwback," he tells me. "So that's fine with me." Every era needs old souls to keep the new ones in check, and that's what makes his latest album so vital right now. Talking to Saadiq, it's obvious he feels many things are missing from today's music.These elements are all present on his recent disc. "Oh Girl" is a gentle crooner with lyrics ("You know you saved me from myself/You knew that I needed help") that are a reminder to male singers that they'd do well to tone down the machismo. On "Never Give You Up," a duet with Stevie Wonder, Saadiq's soft vocal delivery ("She's so sexy/The way she walks, the way she talks/Drives me crazy") draws the line between love-making sensuality and fuck-me-hard sexuality. Similar to a Marvin Gaye record, sex and social issues commingle here. "Somebody please tell me what's going wrong," he cries on the Katrina-inspired "Big Easy," his breathiness proving that fist-clenched anger isn't the only way to express outrage.So how does an artist firmly planted in the modern world manage to channel such vintage moods?"It was just about being in that frame of mind, y'know, putting yourself in that place," he says. "I gave my mind and body to the music. I wasn't really thinking about the label's reaction or if the TV bookers will get it or concert promoters or fans or whoever."But rave reviews and plenty of bookings prove they do get it. And Mary J. Blige gets it. So do Q-Tip and D'Angelo, ?uestlove and Badu, Macy Gray and Bilal. Safe to say, few artists have stayed so successfully out of step as Saadiq.feedback@seattleweekly.com

 
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