Raphael Saadiq: “Stone Rollin'”

In the entire rock and roll lexicon there are perhaps no two words as pregnant with multiple meanings and associations as the words rolling and stone. That they would appear as the title of Raphael Saadiq’s new album– albeit in the inverse order, and one of them slightly truncated– strikes me as a little cheeky, and, quite frankly, a tad unwise. This is, after all, a man whose work has long sold short with the diminutive label of revivalist, his critics accusing him of rehashing the past and essentially creating living museum pieces; to invite further dinosaur associations by invoking Dylan, Mick, Keef, and Muddy Waters doesn’t seem like a good way to help his case, any more than his natty suits and retro chic help him escape the accusation that he’s nothing more than a very effective stylist.

But Saadiq has always been much more than a revivalist; no matter how perfectly he restages the classic Motown sound, for instance, there’s no mistaking his singing and songwriting talents for anything other than living, in-the-moment soul. And as it happens, Stone Rollin’ is some altogether next-level business from the veteran musician, an album that doesn’t exactly find him stepping out of his natty attire so much as showing just how far back the wardrobe goes, and proving that, vintage though they may be, his threads have a classy flair that’s anything but archaic.

I can’t help think, listening to Stone Rollin’, about how much members of the hip-hop community seem to love this guy; in particular, guys like ?uestlove– who has his finger on the pulse of the present-day but also has a bit of an old-school flair himself– speak of Saadiq’s work with reverence, and I suspect they’ll like this new album as much as anything the man has ever done. Hip-hop, like jazz, is a music that seems in its best moments to exist at the crossroads of black music and culture, encompassing within it all the offshoots of soul and funk and R&B. Saadiq’s new album is much the same: He reveals himself to contain multitudes, reaching back into blues and Philly soul, early rock and roll and greasy Southern grooves, reshaping it all in his own image and proving himself to be something like the black Elvis Costello in the way he conjures the past with an encyclopedic scope but also a refusal to pretend to be anyone but himself.

A good case in point, I think, is the barnstorming rock and roller “Radio,” a bangin’ cut from the garage that sounds like it was made by someone who has mostly ignored the last 45 years or so of new developments in rock music– basically, like he stopped listening sometime shortly after Rubber Soul. But if it’s easy to hear plenty of Chuck Berry and Little Richard in the cut’s hollerin’ energy and sock-hop naivete, I confess that it’s just as easy to hear its bare-bones construction as an homage to the White Stripes– so I don’t know whether to call it revivalist or revisionist, but I’m leaning toward simply calling it one of the hottest singles of the year. The lyric itself is a rather gleeful send-up of Saadiq’s convention-distorting and history-blurring notion of craft; it could be about a girl or about the music that he loves, and its invocation of the album’s title phrase only, ah, muddies the waters.

Right before that song we get an album highlight called “Go to Hell,” another song that could almost come across as a sort of hipster meta-wink were it not so sincere in its delivery and so heartfelt in its sentiment. Despite its confrontational title, you see, the song is really a prayer for love and peace; it blurs the line between love song and social statement– and in so doing, it gives a sense of contextual depth to the more straightforwardly romantic songs on the rest of the record– and, fittingly enough, it sounds like a slice of soul that could have come from the pen of either Sly Stone or Curtis Mayfield (circa Curtis/Roots). But I wouldn’t say anything about it sounds retro; the rolling thunder percussion gives it a physical grit and a weightiness all its own.

Saadiq wears his influences on his sleeve, but his invocation of them is nothing if not loving, and he pays them the ultimate respect of using their work as a sort of inspiration, not outright theft; and so a song like “Daydream” can exist as a perfectly happy marriage of Bo Diddley shuffle and Ray Charles in full C&W mode. Its lyric is sweet and innocent and classic in its construction– but it is neither more or less classic than the title cut, a dirtier, bluesier number with nods to the Stones as well as Howlin’ Wolf and a lyric that isn’t raunchy so much as cheerful in its good-natured innuendo.

There are terrific little excursions throughout the record– dips into Little Walter-flavored blues and rock, Sly Stone raves, and smooth soul on the Philly tip– but I want to make special mention of “Good Man,” sort of a soured Southern drawl of a song that slouches against a tart vocal hook that would make a terrific sample for a rap song– something for Outkast or Ghostface, maybe– but works even better as its own thing, a sort of anguished back-and-forth lover’s dialogue that touches on responsibility and infidelity and commitment and even hints at some of the more socio-political dimensions of “Go to Hell.” It’s a rather brilliant piece of work and is superior to just about anything in Saadiq’s catalog, but not primarily for its easy deployment of ideas so much as its sheer intoxicating hookiness. I’d call that a pretty good endorsement for Stone Rollin’ on the whole, actually– an album that dazzles with its command of history but sticks with you because, quite simply, it jams.

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