Homage is a precarious thing. Executed well, a song that evokes a distinct time and place can also provide a fresh take on a particular musical epoch. The work of Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings is a prime example. Right down to the cover art of their 100 Days, 100 Nights (2007) album, the group took the most timeless elements of early-‘60s styled soul and mixed it with their own signature sound. However, when an artist merely imitates a certain style of music that’s specifically aligned with an era, the results sound uninspiring and lackluster.
Raphael Saadiq’s The Way I See It falls somewhere between the two poles that delineate superior examples of homage and examples that are no more than carbon-copies of the real thing. (Things could be murkier. He could have recorded a covers album.) On his first album since 2004’s Ray Ray, the prolific writer/producer emerges as a veritable one-man Temptations. He dresses the part on the album cover, mirroring the lithe physique and bespectacled eyes of David Ruffin. (Columbia even replicates their early-‘60s logo on the cover art.) Here, Saadiq serves up twelve songs that, to a painstakingly accurate degree, recall the magic of the Motor City, among other geographic centers of soul music. Does the album hold up on the strength of Saadiq’s reverence?
For the most part, Raphael Saadiq injects his own personality into the songs. He only occasionally falls into the mannerisms of the great forefathers of soul. His tone is obviously very influenced by Marvin Gaye on “Never Give You Up”, where no less a legend than Stevie Wonder surfaces for a harmonica solo, and “Sometimes” sounds like a Sam Cooke song that never was. These qualities aren’t necessarily demerits but they do suggest the songs are maybe too derivative for their own good.
The material that does work here does so in resplendent fashion. Saadiq employs sumptuous strings on “Just One Kiss”, while Joss Stone guests for a memorable duet. The contrasting textures in each artist’s voice are an inspired match. True to the limitations of the 2:30 single that defined AM radio in the 1960s, the song clocks in well under three minutes, amounting to little more than a tease of a superb performance between the two artists. “Callin’” features a gorgeous spoken-word intro in Spanish before the Penguins-style harmonies kick in. “I keep trying to call / But you don’t answer the phone / ‘Cause you don’t want me no more”, Saadiq sings mournfully and his pain is palpable.
Hurricane Katrina is the backdrop for “Big Easy”. Saadiq inhabits a character who, tragically, is based on the very real circumstances people found themselves in both during and in the aftermath of the hurricane. He sings the refrain “Somebody please tell me what’s going wrong / I ain’t see my baby in far too long” with soulful urgency and pays tribute to the music of New Orleans with ample touches of brass adorning the track.
Though Saadiq is working in a (mostly) ‘60s milieu, sometimes the directness of his lyrics works in stark contrast to the subtleties that were characteristic of the era. He begins “Let’s Take a Walk” with, “This place is crowded / Don’t know ‘bout you / I need some sex / Some sex with you”. The dynamic is akin to Amy Winehouse hissing, “What kind of fuckery is this?” on “Me and Mr. Jones” from her similarly spirited Back to Black (2007) album. The incongruity is almost amusing.
The Way I See It earnestly tries to summon the image of Saadiq on a black and white television screen surrounded by three or four iterations of himself. One’s total enjoyment of the album depends on their appreciation of classic soul and R&B and whether such appreciation is contingent on absolute authenticity. Those playing close attention have already heard enough tributes (Solange, Ryan Shaw, Duffy, Nicole Willis, and company) to that halcyon era of soul music, which works against The Way I See It. Saadiq is a little late to the party. He is committed to the material—that is certain—but despite the original songs, an undeniable sense of déjà vu detracts from his fine performances. I eagerly await his next album.