Raphael Saadiq's solo debut, Instant Vintage, reflected the sense shared by the former Tony! Toni! Toné! member and the rest of the neo-soul brigade that their movement was about more than backward-looking Aquarian revivalism. Neo-soul was about establishing a new canon, making music that would provide the spiritually stultified denizens of Y2K-era America with the same uplift and nourishment that their parents found in the classic soul and funk of the '60s and '70s. By comparison, Stone Rollin' is vintage in the same comforting and commercially palatable sense as faded t-shirts and period furniture. To an even greater extent than Saadiq's warmly received The Way I See It, Stone Rollin' is a retreat from relevancy, one which finds the singer abandoning former peers like Maxwell and Erykah Badu in the trenches so that he can play the leading role in what amounts to an off-Broadway revue of yesteryear's R&B.
It's a production that's not devoid of solid tunes, but even the highlights are complacent genre exercises distinguished merely by superior hooks and a minimum of annoying "stage banter." There's dynamite in the ballsy blues-rock of "Heart Attack," but nothing that the Black Keys don't do better. And the orchestral Motown/Philly soul that's executed to a T on "Go to Hell" rehashes the same gushing string melodies with which Camera Obscura adorned My Maudlin Career. The comparisons to indie acts aren't accidental either: I find it revealing that Saadiq's resuscitated soul is on a par, in terms of creative appropriation, with what you get from a rock or pop act self-consciously aiming to "do Howlin' Wolf" or "do Philadelphia soul."
As the album bears on, Saadiq tries to compensate for poor songcraft with overbearing showmanship, chatting up his listeners like he's live at the Apollo, only his material consists of kitschy affectations that would get him booed from the stage in no time. By way of introducing the jazzy "Day Dreams," he asks, "Have you ever wanted to buy someone you loved something, but you couldn't afford it? But you just bought it anyway?" It's one of many places where it becomes all to easy to imagine Saadiq mugging in front of a casino bar crowd, maybe lowering his Buddy Holly specs to wink politely at the grandmas who have consumed enough vodka tonics to make a sportsmanlike pass at "raising the roof."
At a certain point it even becomes difficult to be impressed by the album's stylistic breadth, as it becomes clear that Saadiq isn't so much inhabiting discrete genres as sifting through a rolodex of impersonations: a little Ray Charles here, a little Sly Stone there, all of which provides intermittent amusement, but not merely enough to render the question of Saadiq's own personality moot. Stone Rollin' is just too reverent in its retro to leave a lasting impression of its own, and the average song is hardly strong enough to provide an adequate substitute for the classic tune or tunes to which it harkens.
It's a level of retrenchment that I have trouble forgiving because R&B circa 2011 has no shortage of compelling artistic ideas. Whether you go in for Janelle Monáe, James Blake, or Jazmine Sullivan (to say nothing of the stalwart experimentalists mentioned earlier), or whether The-Dream or the Weeknd is more your vintage, there are plenty of artists proving that R&B doesn't have to go on justifying itself by reference to its golden oldies. R&B's menu has never looked so diverse or enticing, but Stone Rollin' is overcooked comfort food dressed up as haute cuisine.