DAVE DAVIES, host:
Raphael Saadiq is a former member of the group Tony! Toni! Tone! Since embarking on a solo career, he's become one of the leading proponents of the neo-soul movement. His 2008 album "The Way I See It" was at homage to Motown Records.
Rock critic Ken Tucker says Saadiq's new release "Stone Rollin," broadens his campus to take in other R&B styles as well.
(Soundbite of song, "Radio")
Mr. RAPHAEL SAADIQ (Singer/Songwriter): (Singing) I met this girl on radio. Said say no low. She wasn't getting my sound. She kept the thousand down. I told her turn up the bass. And the she gives me in my face, face, face. I told her I had a girl.
KEN TUCKER: Three years ago, Raphael Saadiq's "The Way I See It" was a neck-snapping collection of almost-perfect 1960s Motown-style soul. For his new album, Saadiq is still intent on making a new generation mindful of the great music of decades past. But he's expanded his areas of exploration, make not merely clever referencing to Sly Stone's black rock 'n' roll style, the epic ballads that emanated from Gamble and Huff's Philadelphia International Records in the 1970s and the raw bark of Stax Records' Memphis soul. And Saadiq admirably avoids nostalgia in favor of fresh grooves that allow him to pursue his own obsessions. These can range from a girl named Radio in the song that started this review, to cooking up a Southern soul/country hybrid on "Day Dreams". It's a speedy-tempo number with another reviver of the past, Robert Randolph, on steel guitar.
(Soundbite of song, "Day Dreams")
Mr. SAADIQ: Have you ever wanted to buy someone you love something but you couldn't afford it? But you just bought it anyway? You know how that go.
(Singing) Yes, I'm living on daydreams. Gon' buy me something I can't afford, uh huh. Yes, I'm living on daydreams. Gon' buy me something I can't afford, uh huh. When the price ain't right and everything ain't looking right, but you still want it all, uh huh. This line is long but still I ponder. This here check won't last until October. But nothing more special than bringing my gifts to you.
Oh, I'm living on daydreams. Living on daydreams...
TUCKER: What about the album title, "Stone Rollin," with its inversion of Rolling Stones as a phrase that evokes both a Mick Jagger band and a Bob Dylan song? Saadiq has said stone rollin' is a phrase he coined for his own concept of taking chances, of rolling the dice to see what happens. He wants to sound casual, but for an artist as meticulous as Saadiq, chance is kept to a minimum. I get what he means, however, especially when he turns that title song into a hymn to booty-shaking, delivered with a precision that's all the more impressive for seeming so tossed-off.
(Soundbite of song, "Stone Rollin'")
Mr. SAADIQ: (Singing) Fat lady shakin, backbone breakin. Come on. This girl of mine. Everything she's got is movin and hot. Come on. Come on. I was just a friend but she took me in said. Come on. Everything was right. I felt like the light said come on.
It makes a blind man walk away from home. You'll tell your girlfriend you wanna be alone. And make an old man throw away his cane. Girl what yo booty doing I just cant explain.
Listen, You don't call her fat...
TUCKER: With Saadiq, the whole package counts. Which is to say, almost everything about him is loaded with signifiers. His heavy horn-rim glasses suggest less nerdiness than an intellect forever in search of a new music-history theory. His impeccable suits and ties and turtlenecks nod to the polish of Motown's famous finishing-school for stars and a polite respect for his concert audiences. And when this longtime bass player brandishes an electric guitar and fronts a live group that has little use for sampling, it's not so much about returning to the idea of the black rock band that was largely abandoned after George Clinton's Funkadelic stopped making epic albums. No, it's more about how to make rock-band instrumentation do the emotional work that hip-hop does now. Thus "Heart Attack."
(Soundbite of song, "Heart Attack")
Mr. SAADIQ: (Singing) You giving me a heart attack. Girl I want you back. I just cant stand it no more. You giving me a heart attack. Girl I want you back. My heart cant take it no more. Do you know how it feels when the pain feels like it could kill? It just knocks you to the floor. She screams your name like she's next door. It gets you down to your...
TUCKER: With its Sly Stone "Dance to the Music" rave up pace, "Heart Attack" is relentless. It's the kind of music that could revive go-go boots. To return to what I was saying about the whole package: The CD cover of "Stone Rollin'" depicts a racially diverse group of young people dressed in '60s-style clothes, arrayed around a guitar-playing Saadiq; the audience recalls the one that used to fill the TV studio for Dick Clark's "American Bandstand." It's another measure of Saadiq's mass-audience outreach. He wants to appeal to young and old, black and white, rock and hip-hop.
The one market segment he probably won't attract is the hip cutting edge, but Raphael Saadiq has made it abundantly clear that he believes trying to be hip is a loser's game. For him, attempting to reach the broadest audience possible, employing a series of musical references his audience may find either square or simply foreign, is as daring as anything an artist can attempt right now.
DAVIES: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. SAADIQ: (Singing) Mama you told me you were coming over Sunday to read me my fairytale...
DAVIES: You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at NPR/FRESH AIR. And You can download podcasts of our show at, freshair.npr.org.
For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. SAADIQ: (Singing) ...girl I'm (unintelligible). You're truly a blessing.