While the name Angie Stone may not be immediately recognizable to most folks who are not hardcore R&B fans, the woman has been a prominent name in music for over a quarter century, a fact which may even surprise fans of her more successful solo work. She started as a member of the pioneering female rap group Sequence back in the early ’80s, moved on to the post-Soul II Soul unit Vertical Hold and worked as a songwriter and vocalist with D’Angelo before officially striking out on her own in the late ’90s.
Under the direction of the legendary Clive Davis at Arista & J Records, Stone recorded three albums of classy R&B music that had more in common with the meatier soul of old than today’s hip-hop flavored R&B. With a honey-flavored voice reminiscent of peak period Gladys Knight, Stone’s first two albums achieved platinum status despite not containing a major pop hit. However, as a plus-sized mature woman (she won’t admit her age, but simple math can tell you that Stone is probably in her mid 40s), it’s unlikely MTV would have come calling anyway. Her third album, 2004’s U-Turn was a solid album that found Stone pandering a bit to a younger audience via Snoop Dogg cameos. It under performed commercially, and after a greatest hits collection, Stone found herself signed to the relaunched Stax Records.
The Art of Love & War is her first album for that label, and it finds Stone in a definite “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mode. Although she increased her profile by appearing on the reality show Celebrity Fit Club last year, this album doesn’t take any steps to pander to a wider or a younger audience. This is a good thing because there aren’t a lot of folks out there making good “grown folks” soul music these days. Even though you wish Stone would broaden her sonic palette just a little bit, there’s something to be said for knowing your lane and staying in it.
The Art of Love & War is a largely mid-tempo affair. The stylistic continuity occasionally drags the album into a bit of a dull patch, but those moments are few and far between. With that said, it’s the more spirited moments that usually stick out on this record. The gently chugging “Baby” (with a vocal assist from soul legend Betty Wright) is a keeper, as is the spirited “My People”. This positive track takes you back to the days when R&B and hip-hop artists strove to educate a little bit amidst all of the love songs. Despite being a bit slight on the lyrical side, Stone and guest vocalist James Ingram (and the prerequisite children’s choir) deliver a message of positivity and perseverance to black folks in the spirit of artists like Curtis Mayfield. They end the song by shouting out important figures in black history, from Jane Pittman and Harriet Tubman to Tiger Woods and… Bill Clinton (“the first black man in the White House”)? Even with Angie injecting a little humor at the end, it’s still a welcome beacon of light in the midst of the negative images that mar much of today’s contemporary black music.
Take away that moment of socially aware inspiration (and the Stevie Wonder-esque album closer “Happy Being Me”, whose lyrical bent should be self-explanatory), and you get an album that pretty much lives up to it’s title. The songs on The Art of Love & War explore all sides of relationships. If you tune out the lyrics, though, the flow of this album is perfect for a romantic interlude. Light the candles and turn down the lights. Just hope that your significant other doesn’t hear songs like “Here We Go Again” (which expresses definite reservations about continuing a relationship) and questions why you put this album on in the first place.
Stone provides the perfect midpoint between vets like Gladys Knight and Chaka Khan and the younger divas like Mary J. Blige and Keyshia Cole. It’s old-school soul with just a pinch of contemporary flavor. Stone has had enough experience to sell her songs without having to resort to vocal masturbation a la Beyonce-there’s definitely an air of maturity to Stone’s singing. Witness tracks like “These Are the Reasons” (a jazzy throwback to Stone’s Vertical Hold days) for proof. Although she could occasionally use a co-lyricist (later album tracks like “Pop Pop” and “Play Wit It” are true filler), The Art of Love & War marks yet another solid entry into the musical canon of an under appreciated vocalist.