Three years ago, Raphael Saadiq's The Way I See It was a neck-snapping collection of almost-perfect Motown-style soul. For his new album, Saadiq remains intent on making a new generation mindful of the great music of decades past. But he's expanded his areas of exploration, referencing Sly Stone's black rock 'n' roll style, the epic ballads that emanated from Gamble and Huff's Philadelphia International Records in the 1970s and the raw bark of Stax Records' Memphis soul — to cite just a few. And, once again, Saadiq admirably avoids nostalgia in favor of fresh grooves that allow him to pursue his own obsessions. These can range from a girl named Radio (in "Radio") to, in "Day Dreams," cooking up a Southern soul/country hybrid. It's a speedy-tempo number with another reviver of the past, the canny Robert Randolph, on steel guitar.
What about the album title, Stone Rollin', with its inversion of Rolling Stones as a phrase that evokes both a Mick Jagger band and a Bob Dylan song? Saadiq has said "stone rollin'" is a phrase he coined for his own concept of taking chances, of rolling the dice and seeing what happens. He wants to sound casual, but for an artist as meticulous as Saadiq, chance is kept to a minimum. I get what he means, however, especially when he turns the title song into a hymn to booty-shaking, delivered with a precision all the more impressive for seeming so tossed-off.
With Saadiq, the whole package counts. Which is to say, almost everything about him is loaded with signifiers. His heavy horn-rim glasses suggest less nerdiness than an intellect forever in search of a new music-history theory. His impeccable suits and ties and turtlenecks nod to the polish of Motown's famous finishing-school for stars and a polite respect for his concert audiences. And, when this longtime bass player brandishes an electric guitar and fronts a live group that has little use for sampling, it's not so much about returning to the idea of the black rock band that was largely abandoned after George Clinton's Funkadelic stopped making epic albums. No, it's more about how to make rock-band instrumentation do the emotional work that hip-hop does now.
And, to return to what I was saying about the whole package: The CD cover of Stone Rollin' depicts a racially diverse group of young people dressed in '60s-style clothes, arrayed around a guitar-playing Saadiq; the audience recalls the one that used to fill the TV studio for Dick Clark's American Bandstand. It's another measure of Saadiq's mass-audience outreach: He wants to appeal to young and old, black and white, rock and hip-hop.
The one market segment he probably won't attract is the hip cutting edge, but Raphael Saadiq has made it abundantly clear that he believes trying to be hip is a loser's game. For him, attempting to reach the broadest audience possible, employing a series of musical references his audience may find either square or simply foreign, is as daring as anything an artist can attempt right now. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.