Raphael Saadiq was an established presence in the R&B and pop worlds in his teen years. At age 17, he signed on as the bassist for Sheila E’s band, which had the opening slot on Prince’s 1986 tour. He then joined Tony! Toni! Toné, an R&B trio that tapped into new jack swing and go-go for its rhythmic spice and grew quickly into superstar status, peaking with their 1993 album, “Sons of Soul,” one of the decade’s best funk recordings.
Prior to the trio’s breakup in 1997, Saadiq had a solo number on the soundtrack of the hit film, “Higher Learning.” He produced tracks by D’Angelo and the Roots, among others, and formed Lucy Pearl, a neo-soul group featuring members of En Vogue and A Tribe Called Quest. When his solo debut, “Instant Vintage,” came out in 2002, Saadiq identified his music as “gospeldelic,” which seemed an attempt to inch away from what he’d done before, though without denying his roots.
In 2008 he tapped into a pop sound loved by millions including Saadiq: Motown in the 1960s. His album “The Way I See It” was a tribute to a classic approach to hit-making, but Saadiq never succumbed to cliché, sentimentality or mere refreshment “The Way I See It” sounded like a successor to albums by Marvin Gaye, the Temptations and Smokey Robinson because Saadiq was capable of working at their level.
Most tracks on “The Way I See It” were formulated to be a hit singles: with immediate hooks that preceded a catchy, memorable verse and chorus sung by Saadiq, with plenty of ear candy sprinkled in and repeated with strategic intent. Seven cuts ran under three minutes, which would have been perfect for AM radio way back when Motown ruled. Love and romance was the overarching lyrical theme, as pop seems to demand.
“Love That Girl” opened with handclaps, a tambourine played by Motown’s Jack Ashford and an infectious bass line by Saadiq that was inspired by James Jamerson, the engine of many Motown hits. The song “100 Yard Dash” kicked off with a crisp pattern on a snare drum and a guitar riff while “Let’s Take A Walk” was built on congas, Ashford’s tambourine, a subtle organ and a slinky guitar that was a reflection of the sly, spicy lyric. “Never Give You,” which featured vocals by CJ Hilton and a harmonica solo by Stevie Wonder, rode on lush orchestral strings. In each instance, Saadiq sang his parts with verve and charm, settling his voice in among the instruments, thus allow the music to embrace the listener.
Social issues informed some of the album’s songs. “Keep On Marchin’” insisted that, though progress had been made in the civil-rights arena, more could be achieved: “You’ve got to put all your pride into making it.” Despite its upbeat arrangement – a New Orleans-style celebration to allay grief – “Big Easy” referred to Hurricane Katrina: “Our bodies floating, floating into that river” and “So many souls crying/How could it be?/Oh lord, please rescue me.” Touching on his hardscrabble childhood in Oakland, in “Sometimes,” Saadiq honored his mother: “As I walk through the yard I could feel your presence/Giving me the time of my life and showering me with life’s lessons…Mama was more than gold.”
“The Way I See It” spun Saadiq’s already successful career in a new direction. Back by a nine-piece band, he toured aggressively behind it, pushing it to success in major markets. (One show in Paris was issued on DVD in 2010.) In 2011, he released “Stone Rollin’,” an album in which he continued to explore the music that informed his gifts. When time permitted, he took on outside work, running the band and playing guitar and singing during Mick Jagger’s tribute to Solomon Burke at the 2011 Grammys ceremony. Saadiq was the bassist on Elton John’s 2012 album, “The Diving Board.” But he was a sideman by choice and with “The Way I See It,” Raphael Saadiq affirmed his status as a major artist by bringing classic soul to the fore and touching it with his considerable talent.