The name Raphael Saadiq still probably isn’t familiar to the average casual music fan, but that shouldn’t discount the fact that the Bay Area native has been perhaps the most consistent R&B singer/songwriter/producer of recent times.
Born Charlie Ray Wiggins, Raphael got his big break barely out of high school, getting a gig playing bass for Sheila E. during Prince’s 1986 Parade tour. Upon his return home, he joined forces with his brother Dwayne and cousin Timothy Christian to form the highly successful trio Tony! Toni! Toné! Over the course of four well-regarded albums, that group evolved into the last great R&B band of the modern era and helped kick off the “neo-soul” era. The band made three visits to the pop top ten during that period and scored five #1 R&B singles before internal conflict led to the trio’s split after 1996’s House of Music.
Raphael (who’d by this time changed his surname to “Saadiq”) had already experienced some solo success while still with the Tonys (Tonis? Tonés?), but instead of making an album on his own, he decided to return to the group dynamic by forming Lucy Pearl with En Vogue’s Dawn Robinson and A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad. They had one moderately successful album before internal conflict reared its ugly head again and Saadiq decided to go solo once and for all. In the decade since, he’s recorded three solid solo albums. Although mainstream recognition has been elusive, his albums have gotten a lot of love from music critics as well as the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences — he’s racked up quite a few Grammy nominations over the years. In addition to performing, Saadiq is also a renowned producer, having worked with Joss Stone, Whitney Houston, the Roots, Q-Tip, the Bee Gees, D’Angelo, and Erykah Badu, whose “Love of My Life” stopped a Susan Lucci-like streak of Grammy futility.
There are probably quite a few folks who don’t even realize that the guy crooning neo-Motown tunes in the sharp suit and bow tie is the same guy who danced across the screen in a baggy Day-Glo suit in the Tonys’ “Feels Good” video back in 1990. As the release date for his latest solo effort, Stone Rollin’, nears, I’ve decided to take a look at Saadiq’s quarter-century of soul excellence in all its guises.
Tony! Toni! Toné! – Who? (1988)
1988 was a pivotal time in R&B. Prince-like synth-soul was giving way to the more rap-identified genre of new jack swing, and the era of the funk band was coming to a close. Tony! Toni! Toné! had a youthful style that managed to bridge the gaps between the past and future of soul music even on their debut album. Despite the promise shown on Who?, though, it’s still the only T3 album that comes off as a producer’s exercise — the fingerprints of production team Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy (members of Club Nouveau who also discovered En Vogue) are all over these songs. While nowhere near as head-spinningly good as later T3 albums, Who? has held up quite well after nearly 25 years. It was an immediate R&B hit, peeling off four top ten hits on what was then called Billboard‘s “Hot Black Singles” chart, although it failed to make a big crossover impact. Many of the album’s standout tracks combine light funk with either a sense of humor (“Born Not to Know”) or a socially redeeming message (the anti-drug-dealer anthem “Little Walter” and the statutory-rape morality tale “261.5”). Tony! Toni! Toné! seemed well on their way to becoming a little-brother version of the Time or Cameo.
(Random fact: the video for Tony! Toni! Toné!’s first single featured Sinbad. Don’t believe me?)
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The Revival brought the Tonys their first taste of pop success with the Top Ten hit “Feels Good” and also found them evolving as musicians, songwriters and producers. The new-jack swing was all the rage at the time, and certain elements of The Revival are within those genre confines, although the members would later bristle at that genre classification. The trio took over the production reins for most of the album, although Foster & McElroy hung around for two tracks. The Revival has more filler than any other Tony! album — some of the more experimental tracks just aren’t there yet, but it’s pretty solid nevertheless with highlights including the Jackson 5-esque “The Blues” and the acoustic guitar-led ballad “Whatever You Want.” The Revival also contains more odd cameos than any other Tonys album. Miss America/Broadway star/future “Desperate Housewife” Vanessa Williams appears on “Oakland Stroke” (despite being from Syracuse, New York) and the guy rapping on “Feels Good” as Mocedes the Mellow later found fleeting fame as Mopreme of the group Thug Life, rapping alongside his brother, 2Pac. By this time, the band was a mainstay at urban radio — all four singles released from this album hit #1 on the R&B chart.
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Sons of Soul was the album on which Tony Toni Toné officially found themselves. Ditching Foster & McElroy and emphasizing more of a live-band sound, Sons is dazzling from start to finish. While everyone else in R&B seemed to be trying to recreate the sound of classic soul via sample, the Tonys just went out and made a classic soul album, featuring hard-hitting funk jams (“If I Had No Loot”), party anthems (“Fun”), lowbrow comedy (the chorus of “My Ex-Girlfriend” ends…”is a ho”), organic hip-hop (“Leavin’,” which features a sample of A Tribe Called Quest and started a fruitful alliance between the two groups), randy ballads (“Lay Your Head on My Pillow”) and a couple of bizarre experiments (“Tonyies in the Wrong Key” is exactly what it says it is). Sons of Soul is easily one of the five best R&B albums made in the Nineties and arguably kicked off the whole “neo-soul” movement that followed.
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Internal (fraternal?) strife led to a three-year delay between Tony Toni Toné (they finally dropped the exclamation points) albums, at which point the band let out one last gasp in House of Music before splitting for good. However, as far as swan songs go, it’s hard to beat the Tonys’ fourth effort. Minor quibble: as much as the band’s influences showed on Sons of Soul, House of Music is a little more blatant. “Thinking of You” directly channels Al Green, while “Holy Smokes & Gee Whiz” is one of several tracks with a major Earth, Wind & Fire influence. The album is perhaps most evenly split between Raphael-led songs and Dwayne-led songs, and thus serves as the best way to experience the elder Wiggins brother’s considerable musical skills.
It’s also telling that most songs feature only one brother or the other as opposed to both simultaneously. It’s a testament to both their talents that an album recorded under such a fractious environment could be so good. The single “Let’s Get Down” is indicative of how wildly eclectic and fun the Tonys could be — Raphael’s simple/funny lyrics stand side by side with a DJ Quik narrative, and to top it off, the fellas interpolate the pre-chorus melody from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the chorus. Genius. The affecting album ender, “Party Don’t Cry,” serves as a fitting way to cap off the discography of the last great R&B band.
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Lucy Pearl – Lucy Pearl (2000)
Following the official split of Tony Toni Toné, Raphael joined forces with En Vogue’s Dawn Robinson and A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad to form the short-lived R&B supergroup Lucy Pearl. Their sole album is a mixed bag. Saadiq and Robinson play well off of one another on certain songs, but other songs seem a little forced, like the cod-rock travesty “Hollywood.” Nevertheless, the male/female vocal is a dynamic rarely explored in modern R&B, and the novelty of hearing that combined with some solid production results in a few winners: songs like the gently insinuating “Good Love” and the Chic-like “Without You” make up for the silliness of “Can’t Stand Your Mother” (a borscht belt routine updated for the Nineties and turned into an R&B song) and the lyrically threadbare (but fairly funky) “La La.”
Like most supergroups, though, there were too many egos in the room, and Lucy Pearl splintered even before the album cycle was over. By the project’s third video, “You,” alt-funk diva Joi Gilliam was standing in for Dawn Robinson. While it pales by comparison to most of Saadiq’s solo work, Lucy Pearl certainly stands as the best thing either Robinson or Muhammad managed to become involved with after the dissolutions of their respective groups.
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For his first official solo project, Saadiq coined the phrase “gospeldelic” to describe his sound — an apt description, as it’s undoubtedly funky and also manages to be the most intensely personal (and spiritually uplifting) work of Saadiq’s career. Raphael called in a career’s worth of favors for Instant Vintage, as the album contains guest appearances by Angie Stone, D’Angelo and TLC’s T-Boz, among others.
While the album may be about ten or fifteen minutes too long (it was the early 2000s, what do you want?), it’s still Saadiq’s most complete solo statement. Lengthy album closer “Skyy, Can You Feel Me” might be the only skippable track on the entire album, and the remainder finds Saadiq going back and forth between simmering tracks like the contemplative “What’s Life Like” and the uncharacteristically angry “People” and more lighthearted fare like “Faithful,” which sounds like it would have been right at home in a post-disco nightclub. As far as dubious distinctions go, Vintage became the first work to be up for an album honor at the Grammy Awards (it was nominated for Best R&B album) after the artist had already parted ways with the label that released it. It should’ve won, too.
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Expectations can be a bitch. Between Sons of Soul, House of Music and Instant Vintage, Raphael set such a high standard for himself that I couldn’t help but be disappointed by Ray Ray.
It is kind of a step down. Saadiq makes a couple of commercial overtures (like first single “Chic (sic) Like You”) so shameless that you can’t help but wonder how stung he was by Instant Vintage‘s weak sales. Despite being initially disappointed by Ray Ray‘s quality, I’ve warmed to most of it over time. The interesting guest lineup for this album includes Babyface, the aforementioned Joi and the woman she replaced in Lucy Pearl — Dawn Robinson (who appears alongside Raphael’s brother Dwayne on the interestingly titled “Rifle Love” — a song that brings together all three stages of Raphael’s career up to that point). It also contains “Not a Game,” one of the only worthwhile things Babyface has appeared on in the past decade.
Ray Ray was meant to be a less serious and contemplative album than Instant Vintage, but it’s telling that the best track is “Grown Folks,” a Curtis Mayfield-styled track that takes adults to task for acting like children.
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Raphael is a dynamic live performer (I’ve only seen him once, but he put on an excellent show…and the show I went to is available on DVD as Live at The Artist’s Den), but I hate concert albums as a general rule, and All Hits just seemed like a way to bring the T3/Lucy Pearl/solo hits under one roof. It’s not a bad album, but even if you’re a diehard, you probably don’t need it.
Just when we thought Raphael didn’t have any more surprises in him, he took yet another left turn with The Way I See It. Taking cues from songwriters like Smokey Robinson, Saadiq made a loving tribute to classic R&B with a very strong Motown influence. More accurately, he brought the song construction and musicianship of those days into the present.
While not as revelatory as Instant Vintage or the last two Tony albums, The Way I See It might be Saadiq’s most consistently listenable effort, and the fact that it afforded him more mainstream critical praise than he’d earned in over two decades of recording is certainly worth something. Although we certainly could’ve done without the unnecessary Jay-Z appearance, The Way I See It confirmed once and for all that Saadiq was one of the most important (and underrated) artists in any genre of music, much less R&B. It also set the stage for the upcoming Stone Rollin‘, which might be the most eagerly anticipated album of Saadiq’s solo career.
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- Video Exclusive: Raphael Saadiq Rocks on ‘Radio’ (rollingstone.com)
- Jeff Rivera: It ‘Feels Good’ Talking to Tony Toni Tone (AUDIO) (huffingtonpost.com)
- The Popdose Guide to Be Bop Deluxe (popdose.com)