Tonyies! In the Right Key?
www.lucypearl.com) ensures us that their collective discography “plays like the soundtrack to an entire era of pop, R&B and prban music.” Whilst each artist brings something of their distinguished past to the group, the result is a hybrid style which cannot simply be attached to any of the group’s members. As if to accentuate this, the album opens with “Lucy Pearl’s Way.” In many ways outlining their collective aims Saadiq’s voice-over states:
“This song simply says: Tribe Called Quest, En Vogue and Tony Toni Tone.
It’s a new definition in the 2000. That the whole world is talking about”
From here Raphael proceeds to break into his solo single “Ask of You” over a reconstructed version of Tribe’s classic “Electric Relaxation,” which appeared on 1993’s Midnight Marauders. In addition to this, Robinson invokes her En Vogue past by alternatively singing “Hold On/Don’t Let Go” (taken from 1989’s Born to Sing and 1996’s Set It Off).
Formed during the summer of 1999, the members of Lucy Pearl are by no means seeking to disinherit their legendary pasts, but rather to move on to pastures new. In relation to this “They Can’t” is also particularly interesting: “We got the hell up off the train before it ran off the track / Got up on the Lucy thing and we never looked back.” Indeed, Saadiq, Robinson, and particularly Shaheed, had all found themselves within situations that were on the verge of stagnation and decline. Thus in opposition to record company wishes each member decided that rather than violating their distinguished legacy they would move into a less constrained creative situation.
“They can’t handle us
‘Cause they can’t step on us
And they can’t use us up no more
They tried to funk with us
But they can’t put a stop to us
‘Cause they can’t control us no more”
Existing very much as a paean to artistic freedom, “They Can’t” is highly effective. To some extent, it is the most hip-hop-inspired track on the album, the heavy beat is reminiscent of the work of Primo and is interspersed with Shaheed’s scratching of Biggie’s “Long Kiss Goodnight.” Rather than simply putting out product the trio seek to “Do It for the People.”
Much like Saadiq, Ali Shaheed Muhammed has also developed and maintained his profile by working extensively outside of the Tribe. Still a member of the Tribe, he worked with D’Angelo to create “Brown Sugar,” and with Jon.B on “Cool Relax.” Since then his talent as a producer outside of the world of hip-hop has been displayed on Eric Benet’s A Day in the Life (“That’s Just My Way,” “Why You Follow Me” and “Lamentation”), Angie Stone’s Black Diamond (“Bone 2 Pic (Wit U)”), and Laurnea’s II (“Keep Your Head Up,” “She’s Hurtin” and “Groovin”). In contrast, Dawn Robinson has remained relatively quiet since she decided to depart En Vogue in 1997. Having left the legacy of a sterling final performance on “(Don’t Let Go) Love” from the soundtrack to F.Gary Gray’s Set It Off, a rumoured solo deal with Dr.Dre’s Aftermath label lead to her providing the hook for The Firm’s (Nas, Foxy Brown, Az & Nature) 1997 single “Firm Biz,” but an album never materialised.
In opposition to D’Angelo’s sprawling Voodoo opus, Lucy Pearl’s debut often recalls those old 45s that rarely lasted too much longer than three minutes. Of the album’s 15 tracks, only four go beyond three-and-a-half-minutes, whilst the entire work lasts for a mere 45. Far from being disadvantageous this methodology contributes to the album’s freshness and accessibility. Rather than being locked into the down-tempo mode which characterises much of today’s R&B, the mood of Lucy Pearl consistently changes and defies the onset of tedium.
Having digested the hard-edged “Trippin,” we segue straight into the retro groover, and lead-single, “Dance Tonight.” Complete with an appealing string arrangement, the South Central Chamber Orchestra also contributes intermittent brass stabs towards the track’s conclusion. Nevertheless, what is most significant is the manner in which the vocals of Robinson and Saadiq complement each other in the creation of the wispy choral vocals.
From here we move on to the simple yet catchy “La La” and “Everyday.” Commencing as a jam session, the latter of these is a down-tempo but heavy-beated funker with an almost spontaneous feel. Elsewhere, the quality vocals and harmonies of the superb “I Can’t Stand Your Mother” are particularly noteworthy, as is the collection’s most down-tempo moment, “Good Love.” With the S.C.C.O once again providing some subtle strings, the warm melody and gentle sentiments create four minutes of the most entrancing soul.
Driven by Saadiq’s outstanding rhythm guitar the mood once again changes for the groovy mid-paced “Without You.” With its dirty underlying bass and percussion provided by the legendary Paulinho DaCosta, this is significantly the only full song that does not feature Robinson on lead vocal duty. However, as if to balance this situation, Robinson has sole lead chores on the up-tempo dancer which follows (“Don’t Mess With My Man”). From here the tempo drops again for the retrospective “Remember the Times,” which once again features the scratching of Shaheed, whilst a more obvious future single is presented in the shape of the Snoop/Q-Tip featured “You.”
Lucy Pearl is in many ways a total collaboration. Though predominantly written by Saadiq, it is collaboratively produced with Shaheed and features major writing input from both he and Robinson. If Wiggins gave a nod to Sly & the Family Stone bassist Larry Graham, then Lucy Pearl is also at times steeped in the legacy of such groups. However, in alliance with such funk roots there are traces of numerous other influences. By fusing Shaheed’s hip-hop/jazz roots (as a teenager he played the saxophone), Saadiq’s retro-soul heritage, and the downright sassiness that saw Robinson and En Vogue forever change the face of the “girl group,” Lucy Pearl creates an album which is anything but contrived. When this trio announced that they were going to release a collective project the world of urban music was caught in anticipation of the resulting sound. Thus born out of their love of music, it seems the group’s foundation is based upon unexpected collaborations. However, whilst this is largely true, Saadiq has of course already appeared on Tribe’s “Midnight” from Midnight Marauders, as well as remixing and guesting on “Stressed Out” from 1996’s Beats Rhymes & Life. Nevertheless, one cannot help but feel the freshness of the resulting sound. By effortlessly fusing a wide range of seemingly disparate elements Lucy Pearl have indeed created an album full of good time soul grooves and laid back hip-hop that “the whole world [should] be talking about.”
Released only three weeks apart, the Tonyies brothers have brought forth material of the highest quality. Surprisingly, Dwayne was first to release a solo project, but Saadiq’s choice to form Lucy Pearl has been more than vindicated. The most interesting aspect of these works is the manner in which both brothers successfully manage to progress beyond Tony Toni Tone in order to construct new sounds. Nevertheless, in spite of this fans of the Tonyies will still yearn for that hallowed reunion album. Interestingly, Motown chief Kedar Massenburg stated on a radio interview for Kiss Fm London that he was interested in the possibility. However, with Saadiq signed on a solo deal to Motown the most likely next move for the brothers Tony is the emergence of his eagerly awaited set. If his past productions and performances are anything to go by, it will undoubtedly be something special. In the meantime savour the talent of this multi-talented performer/musician/writer/producer as he works in tandem with the highly gifted Ali Shaheed Muhammed and Dawn Robinson. Also be sure not to underestimate the part that Dwayne Wiggins played within the Tonyies by investigating the talent that is on display upon Eyes Never Lie. Following the demise of Tony Toni Tone both brothers have gone on to (co-)create works that will surely enhance their already illustrious legacy. Thus we have two Tonyies that are certainly in the right key.