While listening to Raphael Saadiq's new album, The Way I See It, I found myself frequently checking the CD booklet to ensure that this was recorded in 2008, not 1964.
Why? The album serves as a loving tribute to 60's era Motown, an education in classic soul for newer fans and an enjoyable nostalgia trip for older ones. Clearly Saadiq meticulously researched recording techniques from that period — his voice sounds slightly distorted and buried deeper in the mix, while the drums and tambourine possess that thundering, echo-laden quality present in early Marvin Gaye hits like “Pride and Joy.”
This tribute to retro soul is not a radical departure from Saadiq's previous work; as lead singer of pioneering 90's R&B group Tony! Toni! Toné!, he and the band produced cuts such as “If I Had No Loot” that definitely had a retro element. Fans may also remember him from Lucy Pearl, the group consisting of ex-En Vogue member Dawn Robinson and former A Tribe Called Quest-er Ali Shaheed Muhammad. They too released old school-style singles such as “Dance Tonight.” Even Saadiq made no secret of his love for the 60s and 70s through the title of his first solo album: Instant Vintage.
Tracks such as “Sure Hope You Mean It,” “Love That Girl,” and “Let's Take A Walk” sound like early Gaye (think “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” or “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” while “Keep Marchin'” evokes images of the Temptations dancing in their matching three-piece suits. Saadiq also channels Smokey Robinson in the ballad “Just One Kiss,” a gorgeous duet with British soul diva Joss Stone — think an updated version of “Cruisin'.” Not limiting himself to the 60s, he invites comparisons to the 70s' Stylistics with “Oh Girl,” while “Calling” resembles 50s doo-wop groups such as The Platters or The Cadillacs.
Yes, Saadiq unapologetically borrows from these legends; even the cover art makes this clear. This is not to suggest, however, that he merely parrots these artists on The Way I See It. “100 Yard Dash,” the first single, features a catchy beat and spirited vocal that stand on their own. “Never Give You Up” nicely bridges the gap between the 60s and 2000s with strings, pretty chord changes, and modern lyrics (a swinging harmonica solo by Stevie Wonder doesn't hurt, either). “Big Easy” incorporates retro soul with a New Orleans-like beat that invites you to dance.
Arguably Saadiq is taking a risk with this album; he probably will receive little airplay on terrestrial radio, since the music sounds like a time capsule from the 1960s. Younger fans may not be familiar with Motown, thus may pass this CD by. However, these fans should learn about the history of soul music, and The Way I See It offers a good introduction to a particular — and very important — era. Of course these fans should listen to the originators such as Gaye, Robinson, The Temptations, The Supremes, and many others; if this album provides the impetus for doing so, then Saadiq has done his job. Obviously Saadiq attempts to reach this newer audience by including a remix of “Oh Girl” featuring Jay-Z doing a superfluous rap over the pretty ballad.
Those listeners who are already retro soul fans (particularly those who enjoy neo-soulers like Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings and Nicole Willis & the Soul Investigators) should run, not walk to pick up this album. With his new album, Saadiq both pays homage to 60s era R&B and demonstrates how those lyrics, melodies, and beats still resound today. Hopefully The Way I See It, due to these unique qualities, will not be overlooked by fans of current music.