Angie Stone is the kind of artist for whom classification always does a disservice. She possesses a voice of uncommon versatility, sounding equally at home alongside the hottest emcee or fronting a choir. But she doesn’t defy classification, not in the way say a Meshell Ndegeocello or a Joi Gilliam does. Rather, she sort of obliterates the artificial lines between genres, making you realize as you listen to her music that there is really little difference between “neo-soul” and “R&B” and “hip-hop/soul”.
But you can’t really sell that. How could you? Well, if you’re Stax and Stone, you call the album Unexpected and try to tell everyone that it will upend their expectations of who Stone is, that Stone is doing something she’s never done before.
Except, if you are an Angie Stone fan, you know that in her nearly 30 years in the industry she’s done just about everything there is to do, from helping to shape hip hop with Sequence to helping shape D’Angelo to helping shape contemporary soul and giving us perhaps the greatest contemporary soul single of the decade, “Wish I Didn’t Miss You”.
You can’t blame Stone, though, for how to album is marketed. She has never been properly respected by the industry or the marketplace and she does have to sell the album. And once you understand that this is not a radical departure from the Angie Stone template (whatever that is), you can appreciate that it’s another great Angie Stone record that gives you plenty to savor.
The only unexpected move here is the use of Auto-Tune on “Tell Me”. It’s ill-advised and is the one moment in a 30-year career that feels nakedly commercial and opportunistic. It’s so terrible it completely derails the album’s momentum. It’s best to skip “Tell Me” entirely and marvel at how Stone effortlessly weaves together decades of black musical tradition and comes up with something uniquely her own.
“Free”, with its liberal use of synths and beautiful co-lead vocals by Ricco Barrino (Fantasia’s brother), calls to mind a song the Winans might have recorded. It also sounds both tight and expansive. “Kiss All Over Your Body” is classy babymaking music, a style that Stone does not do enough of. Lead single “I Ain’t Hearing You” is truly thrilling and has the kind of groove that animated the great ’80s songs by Stephanie Mills and Shirley Murdock. “Maybe”, “Think Sometimes” and “Why Is It” are all flawless and would probably sound right at home on Stone’s first two albums, Black Diamond and Mahogany Soul.
But the standout track is easily the ’90s girl-group-inspired album closer, “I Found My Keeper”. Stone has rarely sounded quite as beguiling or quite as open as she does here. There’s a palpable feeling of joy that has never appeared on any other Angie Stone song before. It literally makes you smile.
It may be that record labels will never be able to quite capture in marketing campaigns what makes Angie Stone great. She is singular in her ability to be among the most stylistically diverse contemporary artists of our time, without being flashy about it. By now, Stone should know that we know this and love her for it. That she doesn’t, is perhaps, what’s really unexpected.