Raphael Saadiq

Raphael Saadiq

Raphael Saadiq

The Way I See It

Sony BMG/Columbia

Fans of concept records often wonder why artists don’t try them more often; the simple answer is they’re not easy to do. Making a “throwback” concept album provides unique challenges. Essentially, the task is to assemble a group of songs that are relevant in two very different temporal contexts. Artists must navigate two distinct sets of clichés, a feat that, at times, is impossible. Raphael Saadiq, a self-fashioned musical chameleon, is up to the challenge on his third solo studio album, The Way I See It.

At the end of 2004’s As Ray Ray, Saadiq did his best to emulate Curtis Mayfield circa the early 1970s on the message-driven “Save Us.” Much of The Way I See It draws from Mayfield’s earlier incarnation as The Impressions’ young front man. But, as difficult as it is to hear Saadiq’s falsetto croon and not compare these songs to Mayfield, Smokie Robinson (on “Oh Girl”), Sam Cooke (“Sometimes”) or even Babyface (“Never Give You Up”), The Way I See It is the work of a contemporary artist doing his old school thing — think Ben Harper’s Lifeline (2007) more than Al Green’s Lay It Down (2008).

Like Tony! Toni! Tone!’s House of Music (1996), this homage record is influenced from a broad period in R&B. Songs take direction from the pencil-suited male-quartets of the late 1950s and the experimental post-pop artists of the early 1970s. Still, because the audience has the benefit of hearing this record for the first time in 2008, The Way I See It comes off as a focused musical statement, a definitive period piece, though it may not adhere to any one period of R&B.

Fans of Saadiq, the multi-instrumentalist, may be disappointed that the grooving bass lines of As Ray Ray and Instant Vintage have given way to piano-driven rhythm sections and cooing background singers, but they should not hear The Way I See It and think Raphael Saadiq is any less musically ambitious. This short, precise R&B album shows an experimental artist at the top of his game, fully exploring a finite concept for musical depth as opposed to breadth.

Songs like the ebullient “100 Yard Dash,” the ragtime brass band themed “Big Easy,” and the endless love duet with Joss Stone “Just One Kiss” all demonstrate that Saadiq can do whatever he wants to musically. But his vocal performances on “Sometimes” and “Never Give You Up” (with CJ Hilton and Stevie Wonder) steal the show. When Saadiq departs from his falsetto and uses the other parts of his vocal register, the songs sound more contemporary and, ultimately, better. Aside from a disastrous Biz Markie inspired cameo from Jay-Z on “Oh Girl Take Two,” the album is hot throughout, sizzling in spots. Despite its retro look, The Way I See It is, indeed, a focused vision.

Raphael Saadiq: www.raphaelsaadiq.com

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