As concept albums go, Raphael Saadiq As Ray Ray doesn’t exactly hold up after the first two tracks (essentially audio vignettes introducing Saadiq’s alter ego Ray Ray as the main character of a faux-Blaxploitation soundtrack), but the packaging is pretty dope (the cover art is inspired by Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier’s Uptown Saturday Night). And just because the storyline(s)—there are several, according to the press release, but I barely see one—ceases to exist after the first few songs that doesn’t mean the rest of the tracks aren’t good. Ray Ray features Saadiq’s signature fusion of sturdy programmed beats, strings, vintage soul (don’t call it “neo-soul”) melodies, and live guitars. Overall the album is funkier than his longwinded solo debut Instant Vintage and there are a lot more guests on the payroll this time around: smooth meets smoother on “Not A Game,” featuring Babyface; Saadiq’s nephew Allie Baba raps on “Chic Like You”; newcomer Teedra Moses sings on two tracks, including the album highlight “I Want You Back”; label-mate and onetime Lucy Pearl replacement Joi guests on the funky but brief “Ray Ray Theme”; and lead single “Rifle Love” supposedly features Tony Toni Tone and Lucy Pearl (it’s actually just Saadiq’s brother/former T3 member Dwayne Wiggins and original Lucy Pearl vocalist Dawn Robinson). Sadly, the Lucy Pearl “reunion,” sans Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest, is a bit of a letdown, but Saadiq keeps things afloat on his own, conjuring soul greats like Stevie Wonder (“Live Without You”), Curtis Mayfield (“Grown Folks”), and Prince (“I Know Shuggie Otis”) throughout.
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