In a world where cryogenic experiments usually overlook Stax and Motow, Raphael Saadiq’s projects can coast on their novelty. Energetic and sleek, 2008′s The Way I See It did just that. The new Stone Rollin’ goes farther, but no further. The difference is speed. Allowing his nasal tone room to elongate variations on baby-pleases, he tops himself on “Good Man,” which like many tracks are anchored by Saadiq’s own rhythm guitar, cunningly deployed strings, and a histrionic flexibility I haven’t seen in black pop since Prince: Saadiq has no problem fooling the audience into assuming lines like “I’m a good man, food on the table, working two jobs, ready willing and able” empower a “Living in the City”-type cry for help instead of a romantic one. Maxwell has attempted the percolating wah-wah funk of “The Perfect Storm” but his kind points heavenwards; like Al Green, Bryan Ferry, and love men of old, syllabic ineffability substitutes for the lust he can barely articulate. Saadiq is cruder: “I met this girl called radio,” he sings on one particular scorcher, its rhythm so irrepressible that he won’t pause to parse the metaphor — or whether it’s a metaphor at all.
Stone Rollin’ offers so many straightforward pleasures that it makes churls of us all (I’m fond of the extended woodwind intro decorating “Movin’ Down the Line”). But I can’t recommend it without noting how worn a few of his romantic tropes are, and how his voice, supple thing that it is, lacks the curves to compete with, say, the Mellotron fills in “Heart Attack.” Finally, remember “Let’s Get Down,” “Anniversary,” “Little Walter,” “It Never Rains in Southern California” — those huge black chart and pop crossovers whose fusion of new jack, quiet storm, and Smokey-worthy lyrical wit enlivened an already febrile musical landscape. Despite their power, The Way I See It and Stone Rollin’ aren’t quite at their level. Bah. As his rep spreads, Saadiq should lend his chops to writing and producing as much as he can (Mary J. Blige’s The Breakthrough boasts a fine collaboration). Playing too — Mick Jagger recently learned what a damn fine bandleader Saadiq can be.