Not exactly an online exclusive today, since Raphael Saadiq’s third solo album has been out in the States since last autumn and has reaped plenty of Grammy noms and critical plaudits in the interim. Still, I guess late love is better than none at all, and “The Way I See It” is a lovely record.
It fits, ostensibly, in the retro-soul scene that’s proved so lucrative for Amy Winehouse and so on over the past few years, and so critically viable for the likes of Eli ‘Paperboy’ Reed and Sharon Jones. Saadiq, though, doesn’t seem like those last two to be conducting some kind of tiresome Luddite war on contemporary R&B. Instead, he’s a canny operator who’s been at the heart of some great records over the past decade or so (notably the first clutch of Lucy Pearl singles and D’Angelo’s peerless “Voodoo”), and someone who understands that he can be most effective by working within the R&B/hip hop mainstream rather than railing against it.
Consequently, “The Way I See It” is a swish, impeccably dated record, steeped in vintage Motown, that has room for a Jay-Z cameo as well as one by Stevie Wonder (playing his usual harmonica solo, and prefaced here by some grandstanding from Saadiq that’s so gracious and excited it could be Barack Obama).
There’s a long and probably quite tedious argument to be had about the potency of making such a nostalgic-sounding record, about the tangible differences between homage and pastiche, about the supposed imperative to innovate, but I can’t be arsed with that this morning. Basically, “The Way I See It” is a brisk, swishy collection of very fine songs, beautifully realised.
There’s a clipped, sprung economy to much of the playing, and to Saadiq’s unshowy vocals. Even when Joss Stone, one of his former production charges, shows up on “Just One Kiss”(a damn close cousin of The Stylistics’ “You’re A Big Girl Now”), the fuss and histrionics are kept at bay. A nice reminder, really, of what a good singer she can be.
Mostly, Saadiq’s digging Motown – a lower register Smokey Robinson, a renegade Jackson, a one-man Four Tops (especially on the superb, syncopated “Staying In Love”). But on the extraordinary “Oh Girl”, it almost feels as if he’s pointing up a musical continuum, rather than being a mere revivalist.
Ostensibly a slow-jam that, like “Just One Kiss”, sits firmly in the Philly tradition, “Oh Girl”’s drowsy, sitar-flecked melody also carries echoes of “Untitled (How Does It Feel?)”, the showstopper he co-wrote and produced for D’Angelo, plus some of hip hop’s most elevated stabs at schmaltz: LL Cool J’s “I Need Love”, Ghostface Killah’s “All That I Got Is You”. When Jay-Z turns up on a bonus remix of the song, the explicit link to hip hop is handy, but unnecessary.
Talking of Ghostface, by the way, the new MF Doom album that he features on has turned up this morning (I mentioned the sampler a while back). I’ll get onto that sometime next week, all being well.