Angie Stone: Mahogany Soul

Angie Stone
Mahogany Soul

Brown-Skinned black. Pleasingly Thick, by all measure of contemporary standards, ghetto-fab or otherwise. The voice — recalling Betty Wright in her prime. “Tonight is that night that you made me a W-O-M-A-N”– uh, huh Angie, you all woman (quick shout to the white chocolate Brit Soul of Lisa Stansfield). Brown-skinned Black, like (that honey) Gladys in her prime, which by the way extends into this century. “My Sunshine has come . . .” and we take a trip back on that midnight train to Georgia — “Neither one of us . . . wants to be the first to say . . .” — and it is that Stone sista (let the congregation say “sista Stone!!”), with some Stone Soul–“surray down, that stone soul . . .” somebody say Amen! (and another shout out to that white chocolate Soul from the last century Ms. Laura Nyro). Soul from that sista Angie (“when they come is the morning, Ms. Davis”), Angie Stone who makes it all relevant — connected — for real like them pain-killers during those first days of that monthly transition . . . (holla at me if you feeling her on this). Real music — Soul Music — for what my homie-mentor-scholarly mama Masani Alexis De Veaux calls “Newmerica.” Or in others words, music for those for which “tragedy” and “misery” was a real taste in their mouths well before September 11th and who ain’t go no joy ‘cept for that brown-black woman, with the big ass ‘fro, sassing and shaying with some Mahogany Soul.

Angie Stone has literally been in the “game” since 1979, when she completed a trio of hip-hop-ettes known as Sequence. A decade later she was fronting the ground-breaking trio Vertical Hold, having already served as a saxophonist in Lenny Kravitz’s touring band and a writer for Jill Jones. By 1999, Stone was perhaps best known as the muse and “baby-mama” of D’Angelo. But Stone’s obscurity would end with the release of her platinum selling debut Black Diamond and its infectious lead single “No More Rain (In This Cloud)”. Driven by a loop of the percolating Fender Rhodes from the Gladys Knight and the Pips’s classic “Neither One of Us (Wants to be the First to Say Goodbye)”, “No More Rain” is arguably the most recognizable single from the quartet of post-soul divas — Stone, Badu, Jill Scott, and India.Arie. While the popularity of the original song helped introduce “No More Rain” to older audiences, the recording is less an appropriation of and more so a legitimate and distinct remake of “Neither One of Us,” as Stone’s bold “Soul Mama’ vocals, which recall those of both Betty Wright (“Tonight is the Night”) and a young Millie Jackson, soar. Unfortunately despite the single’s success, Stone was not granted the overall acceptance experienced by the aforementioned divas. It was perhaps Stone’s good fortune that she was one of the bargaining chips that BMG Entertainment used to entice Clive (Mr.) Davis to accept his own label after he was deposed from Arista. Backed by a mogul who has for more than 30 years defined the term “record industry maverick” Mahogany Soul is a stunning follow-up to Black Diamond.

It is with Mahogany Soul‘s opening track that one senses that Stone is more fully confident in her skills, as the track “Soul Insurance” offers a challenge to so-called “neo-Soul” fakers (“too many of people trying to do this, half of ya’ll ain’t really true to this”). Borrowing the opening from Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade” (Hey sista, soul sista) Stone openly addresses her peers asking “how many ya’ll done did it/did it before/freak somebody’s shit, knowing that it ain’t yours?”. According to Stone the song was inspired by a real life experience of folks trying to steal her ideas. In publicity notes Stone specifically suggest that “Soul Insurance” is “dedicated to all those folks try to do what I call ‘commercial soul’.” She is even more lucid in the song’s lyrics as she sings “Some were born to sing, so weren’t, but baby that’s okay ’cause I’ve learned, if you really know Soul music, you’ll be around for a awhile, but if you taking lessons from the leaders, baby kiss your ass goodbye.” According to Stone’s lyrics the “leaders” are the “real brothers who I call the leaders of the pack . . . you know who you are . . . you set it off baby”, no doubt a reference to the first generation of neo-soul which includes Lenny Kravitz, D’Angelo, Eric Benet and Maxwell. The objects of Stone’s scorn are not simply those who have “bit” her style but those she derisively describes as “imitating and beat stealing and melody trying to find . . . ” With her later “naming” of legends such as Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, “my mellow” Curtis Mayfield, and Betty Wright, who Stone describes as the “true pioneers of Soul music”, it is clear that “Soul Insurance” serves as a neo-Soul manifesto.

While Stone has been coy as to the identity(s) of those she targets in “Soul Insurance”, it is perhaps useful to note that at least two tracks on Mahogany Soul bear a strong resemblance to a track on Mary J. Blige’s No More Drama. The competing PMS songs — Blige’s “PMS” and Stone’s “bonus” track “Time of the Month” logically represent this fact. More telling though is that both Blige’s “PMS” and Stone’s “20 Dollars” sample one of Al Green’s most underrated performances “Simply Beautiful.” The lyrics to Stone’s “20 Dollars” deals rather explicitly with the kind of trifling “round the way” folks who “borrow and spend” beyond their means (“Can you loan me twenty dollars ’till I get my check next week?” At the core of Stone’s song is the exploitive nature of “ghetto” dependents as she replies ” . . . Now honey I don’t think so / Cause you ain’t paid me back the ten spot from three weeks ago” and later asking in the song’s bridge “what have you done for me? besides being too busy, busy, busy, stressing me constantly.” In the context of Stone’s lyrics “borrowing” becomes a broad metaphor for stealing (“Now I can see where your head is at. See I only got 20 dollars and you still want half of that”) suggesting that Blige may be one of those who she addresses when she sings “bite somebody’s shit and they gonna bite you back” on “Soul Insurance.” Additionally, Stone ends the song with the lyric “Gerald told me you borrowed 10 dollars from him.” The latter lyric is a reference to the song’s producer Gerald Isaac, who incidentally wrote and produced Stone’s “Time of the Month” making even more explicit the connections between the Blige and Stone “PMS” songs.

“Brotha”, the lead single from Mahogany Soul is being “hailed” as a necessary alternative to the “brotha-hate” found in a range of popular R&B songs including TLC’s “Scrubs”, Blu Cantrell’s “Hit Em Up” and of course songs from those budding theoretical feminists Destiny’s Child (“Bills, Bills, Bills” and “Bugaboo”) — as if any of these songs have damaged black masculinity with the kind of malaise that songs like Dave Hollister’s “Baby Mama Drama,” or Guy/Aaron Hall’s “Why You Wanna Keep Me From My Kid” have portrayed young black mothers. Produced by Raphael Saadiq (one of his best efforts) Stone’s “Brotha” is one of the most wide-ranging celebrations (uncritical I might add) of black masculinity since Tashan’s brilliant “Black Man” (1989). The video for “Brotha” features still-shots of notable black men (Nelson Mandela, Marvin Gaye, Jay Z, Arthur Ashe, Jim Brown, Ali, Ray Charles and Steve Harvey among them) and cameos by Will Smith, comedian Sinbad, actor Larenz Tate and singers Luther Vandross, Calvin Richardson and Raphael Saddiq amongst images of those who Stone refers to as the “wall street brotha . . . blue collar brotha, your down for whatever chillin’ on the corner brotha, the talented brotha and.. every one of ya’ll behind bars . . . ” In the broadest sense the song is a passionate and thoughtful defense of black men as Stone sings “he’s mis-understood. Some say that he’s up to no good around the neighborhood. But for your information, a lot of my brothas have education.”

However celebratory and protective Stone may be on “Brotha”, in the tight-spaces of relationships, Stone’s critique of the “men” in women’s lives is brutally trenchant. “Pissed Off” for example, deals with the reality of women in relationships with “damaged” black men as Stones admits to her “man” in the song’s chorus that he is “So pissed off / Looking at life through the glass that you shattered / Little shit like love don’t matter anymore . . .” In the context of this relationship, Stone sings “you need an enemy so your anger just release. I never meant to cause you pain but it was there before I came” highlighting the ways that domestic violence is often predicated on the damage done to black men in the “real” world as opposed to the “home” spaces they share with the women/men they love (see Rahsann Patterson’s “Treat You Like Queen for a more gender ambivalent example). The possibility of such violence is made clear in the lyric “For reacting, you got me packing, trying to get out, before you get back in” as the dual meaning of the word “packing” suggest that she may have to face that cross-road of violent “self-defense” — (i.e. sista “packing” just in case she gonna have to shoot his ass) if she doesn’t “pack” her “shit” fast enough to get out the house. In one of the song’s most brilliant moments Stone sings “I can’t allow you to live rent free in my heart or in my head/Can’t let you back in my bed.” The lyric drops a nod to Gwen Guthrie’s “Ain’t Nothing Going on But the Rent”, which is generally regarded as one of the most effective examples of “brotha-hate” in R&B, while making clear that the matter is not just that the “brotha” is financially bankrupt, but more importantly emotionally and mentally bankrupt.

Stone is even more clear about such “bankruptcy” on the track “I Wish I Didn’t Miss You” as she sings “Memories don’t live like people do / You said forever for me and you / Wish you’d bring back the man I knew was good to me.” The song features a smart sample of The O’Jay’s “Backstabber”–the 1972 single that announced that the emerging production team of Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff were ready to take R&B to some next-level-shit. In yet another example, “Mad Issues” finds Stone telling her man that “you got mad issues / and you tend to misuse / every opportunity to right your wrong . . . the time has come to leave well enough alone.”

Stone’s emotions with regards to the men in her life are perhaps most pronounced on the simply brilliant “More Than a Woman.” The song is a duet with Calvin Richardson, whose 1999 debut Country Boy (Universal) can only be described as a rebirth Muscle Shoals containing a remake of Bobby Womack’s “Trust Me So Much” (Richardson sounds like Womack is his daddy!) and a host of songs that sample tracks like Al Green’s version of “For the Good Times”, Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” and William Bell’s “I Forgot to Be Your Lover” (See Dilated Peoples “Worst Comes to Worst” for another smart “I Forgot to Be Your Lover” sample.) With “More than a Woman” Stone allows Richardson the kind of forum that he lacked with his first release as she can be heard cooing at the song’s opening “Calvin, now baby I believe it’s your time . . .” The song is a passionate tribute to “black love” and the possibilities of faith and patience when things aren’t going well as Richardson sings “told me not to be ashamed with what I got / Never mind them hatin’ niggas up and down the block.” Throughout the song Stone and Richardson sweetly exchange caramel coated lyrics as with the second verse where Stone sings “Look at us, what a lovely ring and I’ve been thinking maybe we should start a family / a girl for you and a boy for me” and Richardson responds “matching stones, separate guests, would you marry me?”. But the passion and camaraderie (love maybe?) between the two are most powerful during the song’s chorus featuring “love lyrics” that may be the best written in R&B in the past decade. The duo is simply chocolate magic as they sing:

Girl you must have lost your way from heaven
Could it be for me you’ve came so far?
Nothing like the ordinary woman
You’re the very beat inside in my heart
Girl you’re like a star, I feel so honored
Shining like diamond out in space
Girl you’re like my mother, my sister, my lover
Irreplaceable, nothing can take your place

You’re the blood in my veins
You’re the air I breathe
On a hot summer day
You’re like a shirt with no sleeves
What makes me a man
Any fool could see
You’re more than a woman to me . . .

The joyous, playful and loving exchanges between the two in the song’s lyrics are reminiscent of a “grown up” version of Clint Holmes “Playground in My Mind” (“My girl is Cindy, when we get married, we’re gonna have a baby or two. We’re gonna let them visit their grandma, that’s what we’re gonna do”) No doubt on the strength of his duet with Stone, Richardson was recently signed to Davis’ J Records, with a 17 track project already in the can for a early 2002 release.

Other major highlights from Mahogany Soul include Stone’s remake of “The Makings of You”. Though the song is generally associated with Gladys Knight, who recorded a version of the song with The Pips for the soundtrack to the film Claudine (1974), the song was originally written and recorded by the late Curtis Mayfield on his first “solo” recording Curtis (1970). Stone’s version of the song, which features stunning harmonies with the assistance of background vocalists Tenita Dreher, Stephanie Bolton and Sherina Wynn, is both a tribute to one of Mayfield’s most beautiful melodies and another reminder of Stones affinity with Knight. Like Knight and Mayfield’s versions of the song, its scant two minutes of length can leave listeners literally groping for more. Another standout track “Easier Said than Done.” Produced by Warryn “Baby Dubb” Campbell, who was the force behind Mary, Mary’s debut and Luther Vandross’s “Take You Out” the song swings like a high-stepping gospel march. The aforementioned Gerald Isaac, who was largely responsible for the production on Calvin Richardson’s debut, is behind the boards for “Bottles and Cans” which is a little slice of countrified Soul.

Musiq Soulchild joins Angie Stone on the overly contrived “The Ingredients of Love.” In many regards Stone outclasses Soulchild, whose lack of range and vocal imagination are becoming increasingly apparent, as witnessed recently by his simply dreadful performances during BET’s tribute to Patti Labelle. The song comes to life though, courtesy of a bouncy sample of Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay.” Stone aims a cautionary tale at the hip-hop heads (“what you dyin’ for . . . Stupid?”) on the Ali Shaheed Muhammad produced “What U Dyin’ For”. On the funny-ass “If It Wasn’t” Stone makes note of her man’s intrusive family members suggesting that things would be fine “if it wasn’t 4 yo momma never thinkin’ I was good enough / If it wasn’t 4 yo brotha always checkin’ every move I gave you / If it wasn’t 4 that witch-bitch down the block . . .”

Mahogany Soul is an accomplished piece of R&B music — notable in a year that has been dominated by some standout debuts by Bilal, Res, and Alicia Keys. Stone’s attention to fine lyrics as well as smart samples that allow her to legitimately add to the original versions and a casual down-home sass suggest that Stone may be the first of this generation of Soul artists, that who really understands “Real . . . Soul Music.”