DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is Fresh Air, I'm David Bianculli. Raphael Saadiq's first success came in the late '80s as part of the pop-soul group "Tony! Toni! Tone!" Since that time, he's worked as producer for such diverse acts as Joss Stone, the Roots, and Snoop Dogg and has put out two solo albums. His new one, called "The Way I See It," is Saadiq's homage to earlier eras of rhythm and blues. Rock critic Ken Tucker says it's that and something more.
(Soundbite of song "Keep Marchin'")
Mr. RAPHAEL SAADIQ: (Singing) Well, there's nothing you can do, Well, there's nothing you can say Because ain't everything going to go your way. If you're feeling kind of strange, and you want to lay it down It is hard for you to keep your feet on solid ground. You better keep, keep on, Keep marching, Ohhh keep marching on, You just got to keep on, keep, Oh yeah, keep marching, Keep marching on, Keep marching on.
KEN TUCKER: It's not a stunt. It's not a wallow in nostalgia. Raphael Saadiq's new album "The Way I See It" is the way he hears it. His deep soul grooves have been part of his music for a 20 year career. Over that time, these rhythms have been plastered with different labels, Neo Soul, and remember New Jack Swing?
In recent years, there have been a number of artists trying to recapture the sounds of Motown, Stacks, and Philadelphia International R&B, but the results have been predictably banal. You can reproduce variations on melodies and rhythm, but without an emotional commitment, it's all tedious pandering to baby boomers. For Raphael Saadiq, there's a glowing vibrancy in soul music that allows him to work out themes and ideas.
(Soundbite of song "Sure Hope You Mean It")
Mr. SAADIQ: (Singing) Do you mean what you say When you say that you love me? With all honesty I think I love you. If everyday I think about how special we could be, And how your love is everything to me. In my mind I can see no one but you, Like in my dreams I know I'm holding you. So now tell me the truth 'cause I need to know. See, I want to take control but you got to let me know. Don't pull me baby. Sure hope you mean it, Sure hope you mean it, girl Show you, Show that you love me girl. Don't pull me, baby...
TUCKER: As far back as his work with Tony! Toni! Tone!, Raphael Saadiq has been a singer of doubt, of psychic wounds, of romance undergoing a test. On that song, Saadiq is waiting for a positive sign from the object of his affection. No blustering love man, he croons, I want to take control, but you've got to let me know. This could've been the confession of a wimp, but that's where the authoritative snap of Saadiq's music gives him a bracing strength. He's in this for the long haul or a fast burst. Like this one called "100 Yard Dash."
(Soundbite of song "100 Yard Dash")
Mr. SAADIQ: (Singing) Girl I try to run but couldn't get to far, My heart is pumping but still running in place. No matter how hard, I try to ditch your touch, When you're away too little will count as too many, But every time I want, I made it Oh so bad. But I'm running to get my heart beating so fast. I heard that you could make a man change his place That's why I'm running fast, I'm running the 100 yard dash. I ran for the hills. Oh girl, there you were. How you appear. You see I'll never know. I told her parting words about me at temple base, Then light me a smoke So I can sing some jazz. Now here comes the late...
TUCKER: The first thing I thought when I heard that song was, what a great propulsive melody it has and how achy-breaky Saadiq's voice is. It was only afterward that I then thought, and, oh yeah. It's also a brilliant take on Smoky Robinson and the Miracles. Like many first-rate soul songwriters, Saadiq takes an unorthodox metaphor, love as a fast race that can make a man's heart burst, and he earns it by the variations he sustains verbally, increasing the tension in the song. By the time we reached the end of "100 Yard Dash," all he has to do is groan oh, oh, and you know you've heard a very good song reaching a great peak.
(Soundbite of song "100 Yard Dash")
Mr. SAADIQ: (Singing) Oh, oh, I need some loving I want you lovin...
TUCKER: Saadiq fills out his album with a few guest stars, Stevie Wonder, Joss Stone, and Jay-Z bow in to provide some more emphasis and punctuation. But they're not really needed. The sheer joy with which he summons up the Four Tops or The Temptations in a song like this.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. SAADIQ: (Singing) Did I mention, We have a shop. I'm so good now when you kiss me, I didn't planned this and that's why. I'm so grateful I feel the sun shine. Girl, you changed my…
TUCKER: Invoking 40-year-old genres like that is rendered up to the minute with the timeless message of the chorus, quote, "falling in love can be easy, staying in love is too tricky." Too tricky, he says, almost as though the effort isn't worth it. But like all excellent soul men, Raphael Saadiq knows that the illusion of agony is what rendered so much music of this kind so pleasurable.
BIANCULLI: Ken Tucker is editor at large for "Entertainment Weekly." He reviewed "The Way I See It" By Raphael Saadiq.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.