By the time of Instant Vintage, the (then) 35-year-old producer, vocalist and sideman Raphael Saadiq had a considerable musical past. He’d sung in gospel groups from the age of six, and played bass with Sheila E and Prince on tour at just 18. After enjoying substantial success with Tony! Toni! Toné!, and the brief, fraught but delightful supergroup Lucy Pearl, here Saadiq struck out on his own. Calling on friends such as D’Angelo, Angie Stone and T-Boz from TLC, Saadiq created an album that was as refreshing as neo-soul got. It borrowed from hip hop, RnB and gospel yet felt genuinely innovative, with a style that Saadiq christened gospeldelic.
Doing What I Can sets the bar high. Opening with a Philly soul string crescendo, a news reporter offers a précis of Saadiq’s life. Talking about the tragedy that befell his family (the loss of three brothers and a sister), immediately it dispenses with any personal baggage. Instant Vintage is all about Saadiq’s roots, emphasised by the use of his birth name (Charles Ray Wiggins) in a couple of tracks: Still Ray, which uses the piano sample of Still D.R.E. by Dr Dre and the blues guitar-led childlike domestic documentary Charlie Ray. Be Here, a duet with D’Angelo, is a standout, featuring the duo’s arresting, intricate vocal blend. Each tries to out-smooth the other, without resorting to cliché.
There is also time for some good old-fashioned protest – People is dark and political, a call for the truth swiping at both George Bush and hypocrisies within the music industry. It works because of Saadiq’s sincerity. Even the interludes add to the overall power of the album. OPH is an acoustic, woozy two-minute doodle sung by Shyronda Felder and Traci Nelson, a homage to weed that refuses to succumb to the gauche pitfalls of drug songs.
Driven by his bass guitar, and unafraid to experiment musically (not many RnB albums featured tuba and recorders in 2002), Vibe magazine said that if Instant Vintage were an outfit it would be a "bell-bottom patchwork catsuit of silk, suede, cashmere and macramé with funky armpit stains". It garnered Grammy nominations and a place in the US top 30. By its very nature, Instant Vintage was too clever and sophisticated to be an enormous hit, remaining permanently underground. Saadiq does it his way, and does it well.
Instant Vintage feels like it did in 2002: at once familiar, at once new.
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