We’re starting to worry about Raphael Saadiq.
The talented musician, former Tony! Toni! Toné! frontman and superstar producer should be punctuating his every statement with an exclamation point. He should be ecstatic. He’s working with legends. His new album, Stone Rollin’, is another critical smash, scoring raves from critics all over. It even debuted in the top 20 of the Billboard 200 chart with its limited release in March.
But from the way dude talks during a phone interview one Monday afternoon, it sounds like he hasn’t accomplished much. Maybe he was having an off-day, or maybe he was tired of fielding questions. But judging his curt, indifferent tone, we wondered if he hasn’t grown bored with it all.
You wouldn’t expect this tone from a man who was just seen several months ago at the Grammys, running and jumping around the stage, playing guitar as he and Mick Jagger (!) performed a tribute number in memory of the late soul singer Solomon Burke.
However, Saadiq talks about the event as though shit like that happens to him every day. “I just got a phone call from Mick one day, and we talked about it,” he says, adding that Jagger got a hold of him through a mutual colleague. “We just got together and rehearsed one day, and then, we did it the next day.”
Saadiq says friends who saw him perform that night were more enthused about the experience than he was. However, for the 45-year-old Saadiq, a man who has collaborated with D’Angelo, Whitney Houston, Earth, Wind and Fire, and the Bee Gees, this shit does happen to him every day.
This may explain the aesthetic shift he took with Rollin’. While his last solo effort, 2008’s The Way I See It, saw him doing nostalgic songs that were reminiscent of the classic, Motown soul of the early ’60s, Rollin’ has him leaping back a few years further, going for a more charged, rock-and-soul feel, tilting toward a ’50s-era, Chess Records-ish sound.
“I just wanted to change it up a lot—just move forward,” he says. “I can’t stay in the same spot I was [at] with the last record. So, I think it was a very good departure from where I was at. It’s a different album, but the same time, it’s classic.”
Saadiq worked with some soul vets on Rollin’. Motown great Paul Riser did the string arrangements on several songs, while revered session guitarist and card-carrying Funk Brother Wah Wah Watson did his thing on one track. For the final, bonus track, he collaborated with famed Sly and the Family Stone bassist Larry Graham. Some might see this as the Oakland, Calif.,-born Saadiq paying tribute to the seminal, Bay Area rock/soul outfit whose music was obviously a source of inspiration for most of his career. But, Saadiq insists, much like the Jagger affair, it just happened.
“He was hanging out at the studio one day,” he says. “Next thing you know, we’re doing a song together.”
With Saadiq getting a lot of acclaim for creating music that pays tribute to the groundbreaking soul music of yesteryear, it wasn’t much of a surprise seeing R. Kelly follow suit and coming out with Love Letter, that respectfully retro album of his from last December. So, was Saadiq kinda peeved that Kells looked like he was copping his style, right down to the mod suit-and-tie wardrobe and Buddy Holly specs?
Just as you’d expect, Saadiq took it all in stride. “He’s a great songwriter,” he admits. “Of course, everybody called me and said ‘R. Kelly is wearing glasses and ties,’ and of course he probably got it from me. But, before me, there were a lot of people wearing it. I was just the last one doing it. But I was flattered, actually. If it makes people pull up their pants and stop sagging and wear a suit and tie, then I’m flattered.”
Saadiq seems to prefer to let his work speak for him rather than just talking about it. It appears he’s gotten to that point in his career where he knows exactly what he wants to accomplish, and people will appreciate what he has to offer.
Says Saadiq, “I just do what I want, what I like to do. And once you see people paying attention to it, you just kinda go like, ‘Wow, you should just kinda go with your gut feeling all the time.’ It’s a confirmation of what you love to do ... When you see people following it, you know that works.”
It looks like dude is gonna be OK after all.
Raphael Saadiq performs Thurs., May 26, 8:30pm. $25. Electric Factory, 421 N. Seventh St. 215.627.1332. livenation.com
PW's Music Issue 2014