Based on her first two albums, there was a lot that rubbed me the wrong way about Joss Stone. First, she was hailed as this great British soul singer, like people had never heard of Dusty Springfield, Alison Moyet, and Annie Lennox before. Second, as a teenager singing love songs, she didn’t really have much in the way of believability. Granted, her voice is something special, but on her earlier works, she sounded like a kid trying to play grown up — a problem that still plagues artists even older than Stone (hello, Beyonce). Finally, Stone sounded like someone who learned how to sing “soulfully” from a training guide. Baby, just because you say “sing-ANG” instead of “singing”, it does not make you a true soul singer.
Those two albums in question — 2003’s The Soul Sessions and 2004’s Mind, Body & Soul — were mediocre, but showed promise. Stone’s third effort, Introducing Joss Stone, is yet another big step towards establishing Stone as a fantastic soul singer. It’s certainly the first great R&B album I’ve heard this year. While there’s still the occasional affectation that I wish she would get rid of, Stone has grown into her music quite a bit. Of course, it helps that, as Stone’s the album’s primary songwriter, most of the words that pass through her lips are hers.
It also helps that she brought along Raphael Saadiq as her co-pilot for this voyage. Saadiq, over the past two decades, has built up quite a resume, not only as 1/3 of Tony Toni Tone and later Lucy Pearl, but also as one of R&B music’s most adventurous and organic producers — working with everyone from Bad Boy girl group Total to neo-soul savant D’Angelo. Saadiq’s sound is perfect for Stone, and the end result for the album is a winning sound that contains actual musicianship with a classic sound AND a contemporary feel. Live strings, bass, and some stunning funk guitar work coexist peacefully with turntable scratches, guest emcees, and Stone’s powerful voice.
The album’s main topic is love: good love, bad love, romantic love, and love for things like music — which is, incidentally, the name of the album’s best track. A testament to the healing power of song, the track’s simmering groove and sumptuous vocal arrangement are topped by a dizzying, tongue-twisting 16 bars from the long M.I.A. Lauryn Hill. It’s a small hope, but one wonders if this guest appearance will finally be what it takes to bring L-Boogie out of retirement.
Introducing Joss Stone is a primarily up-tempo effort. The album has a summery feel, which will definitely perk ears up as we patiently wait for spring to arrive. The retro-’70s flair of “Baby Baby Baby” and the Aretha-quoting “Headturner” are jams meant to be grooved to with a smile on your face. You could imagine someone blasting them from a boom box on their stoop — if people actually did that sort of thing anymore. Other highlights include the funky shuffle of “Girl, They Won’t Believe It”, the semi-acoustic “What Are We Gonna Do Now” (featuring a wonderfully efficient guest verse from Common), and “Arms Of My Baby”, a piece about being alone on the road and missing your significant other. This song veers from a Latin flavor to a Philly soul vibe in seconds flat. It’s both fun and somewhat daring.
While the ballads on this album are serviceable, they’re definitely not as good as the rest of the album. The only one of note is “What Were We Thinking”. It starts off as a spare, ‘60s influenced track that sounds eerily like a far superior Saadiq production: “I Found My Everything” by Mary J. Blige. However, just when you’re about to cut the CD off, the song explodes into waves of loud guitar, giving the track a rock-ish crunch.
While there are a couple of moments of over-singing and vocal affectation, Introducing Joss Stone is a dramatic leap forward creatively, without straying too far from the sound that made Stone famous. At the very least, kudos should go to Stone and her camp for staying true to a fairly organic soul sound and not turning her into a run-of-the-mill pop/soul diva (although I can very easily see that happening if this album is not a success). Although Stone’s only 19, Introducing is a soulful effort that shows that Stone has the goods to be a major player in the world of “real” R&B as she ages.