Intentionally or not, Time to Share transcends the mindless mimicry of so many soul aspirants. But its American success may depend on more than the soft seduction of Toshi's intricate vocals.
The day of the sepia soul singer, like that of the geechy, is gone -- or at least it is fading fast. Justin Timberlake, Nikka Costa, Marc Broussard, and Joss Stone all embody the black voice minus the pesky black body, all the while charming critics and climbing charts. The white masses, purportedly solely responsible for the chart domination of rap, can't entirely assume this blame; the black race has tired of staring at its glistening reflections on BET and MTV, no less listening to the distinctive vocal acrobatics and churched up tones of boringly black singers.
But white has always been right in the bloody history of the United States. Black has always been wrong, and everything in between has been ignored. However, this country -- and more importantly this world -- are comprised of more than black and white; the majority of the world's people are letting loose to Canto or Hindi pop. So as US artists plunder eastern rhythms, eastern artists look west, and in the dark shadows of the setting sun Japan's Toshi Kubota stumbled upon the black musical tradition. Bottle tops -- soda not champagne -- redeemable for coveted vinyl records landed the young Toshi a Stylistics record, soon supplemented by the classic works of Stevie Wonder, thus beginning a lifelong love affair with soul music.
And soul music has been very good to Toshi: 10 million albums sold worldwide and counting. But the US market remains as elusive as it is important. This past fall, Time to Share hit records shelves testifying to Toshi's protracted study of R&B. The ballad-heavy ten-track collection boasts production by hip hop luminaries Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Buckwild, Musiq's favored production team Carvin Haggins and Ivan Barias, and four songs from the criminally underrated Angie Stone.
But the rhythms are of least concern to Toshi. His vocals are sparse, intricate, and smoothed-out; at times they overwhelm the listener. But his incredible intensity -- likely evidence of his earnestness -- often does a disservice to the material, and the bodies it intends to move. "Shadows of Your Love", for instance, is damaged by some over-enunciated lyrics and a chorus belted out with annoying prominence. Angie Stone is responsible for the horrid vocal production here, but she redeems herself on "Beating of My Heart". Although her backing vocals are oddly placed at the front of the mix, Toshi and Stone display the wonderful chemistry born by chance in a Stone-ambushed writing session with Raphael Saadiq. Toshi and Stone strike black gold on the slick duet "Hold Me Down", thanks to the soft seduction of Toshi's capable voice. Up-tempo grown folk body-rocker "Breaking Through" also dazzles, and could easily incite furious two-stepping at your older cousin's (or young acting auntie's) house party all night long.
Despite its occasional failings, the album ends on a high note with Toshi consorting with '90s R&B royalty Renee Neufville (of Zhane and, most recently, Roy Hargrove's RH Factor). "Voodoo Woman", a funky tribute to Toshi's "Black Magic Woman", explodes with energy over a cluttered canvas thick with bass and percussion. Undoubtedly Toshi hopes that the US R&B charts will explode with color, and that American consumers' fickle but unsophisticated palettes will explode with a different but nevertheless savory flavor of soul music.
Intentionally or not, Time to Share transcends the mindless mimicry of so many soul aspirants. If Toshi, like Joss and them -- in the words of Em' -- is doing "black music... selfishly", I can't call it. I don't know if that's my role -- or anyone else's, for that matter. Toshi seems to have distinguished himself from the patrons of Tokyo's Club Harlem who revel in black cultural production but demand black clubgoers be escorted in by Japanese. Maybe that's why he will remain under the radar: if there's one thing the American masses love, it's the aping of a culture.