SONIC REDUCER Who can turn the Dogfather's head with a tune, bring a melody to Mary J. Blige's lips, and get Stevie Wonder out of bed in the wee hours? Raphael Saadiq, that's who. And with good reason: the Oakland-born-and-raised vocalist, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer not only found substantial fame back in the day singing alongside bro Dwayne Wiggins and cousin Timothy Christian in Tony! Toni! Toné!, he's kept his chops honed over the years by lending his ear for stellar R&B and soul. He's produced Joss Stone, 2Pac, the Roots, John Legend, Kelis, Mos Def, D'Angelo, and the Isley Brothers, among others. He's collaborated with a who's who of pop putf8um, including Blige, Snoop Dogg, Whitney Houston, the Bee Gees, Ludacris, and John Mellencamp.
Damn. Little wonder a legend like Wonder will rouse himself at short notice to assist on Saadiq's fab, hip-shaking old-school soul disc, The Way I See It (Columbia). The way Saadiq, né Charlie Ray Wiggins, tells it over the phone during a late-morn breakfast in Los Angeles his protege CJ had just finished singing his part on the sinuous, ready-made hit "Never Give You Up," when he announced, midtrack, "I'd like to invite Stevie Wonder to my album." So Saadiq decided to call Wonder and ask for a harmonica solo: "[Wonder's] usually traveling around the country, and he asked, 'When do you need me?' I said, 'An hour.' He goes, 'An hour?' And he showed up an hour and a half later at one at night."
Easy for him to ask since Saadiq had already worked with the rock 'n' soul icon and Beyoncé on a Luther Vandross tribute, but it's clearly Saadiq's down-to-earth charm, disarming ease, and all-too-evident talent that keeps those friendships alive. Oh yes, and Wonder is "his Taurean brother" born May 13 to Saadiq's May 14.
That casual vibe runs throughout Saadiq's immaculately assembled, long-awaited followup to 2004's Ray Ray (Pookie). "For the most part, I kind of played everything myself on the whole album, but I bumped into certain people," he says. He plucked Rocio Mendoza, the sensuous lead vocalist for "Calling," from his favorite LA breakfast spot and gave her a star turn. Stone to whom Saadiq has been linked romantically, though he demurs, "We're just friends" also guests, on the creamy, dreamy, string-stung mélange "Just One Kiss." But star turns aside, what fully emerges from Way is its sweet, sweet soul songs living, breathing throwbacks to '60s Motown, as fleshed-out and vital as anything by current soul revivalists like Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Amy Winehouse, Mark Ronson, and Duffy, and crafted by a luminary of the genre's last resurrection. The cover image of Way, with a besuited, Marvin Gayelike Saadiq, for instance, was taken two years ago at Oakland's Sweets Ballroom.
The new album out Sept. 16 on the heels of Saadiq's Sept. 11 appearance at KMEL's House of Soul show at Ruby Skye began to come together two years ago. "Being away from home so long, on an island [the Bahamas, where he was producing Stone] the next thing you know, you look down, and the album is done," Saadiq drawls. "But I've always heard music like that, since I was seven years old. Some of the first music that ever really opened me up was that music, so it wasn't a stretch for me."
The R&B vet can also step back and break down why a new gen has gravitated toward old-school bounce. "For artists it's coming back because a lot of DJs spin a lot of vinyl, and that's all they're really listening to," he explains. Nonetheless, he continues, "it never really went away. It's the only thing that don't leave the shelf.