Happy 15th Anniversary to Raphael Saadiq’s debut solo album Instant Vintage, originally released June 11, 2002.
Man, you’ve got to have some cojones to call your debut album Instant Vintage as Raphael Saadiq did back in 2002. Even calling it a debut—though strictly speaking, true—seems a tad disingenuous, given the wealth of material Saadiq had laid his magic touch upon since his breakthrough at age 19, when he played bass in Sheila E’s backing band on Prince’s 1986 Parade tour.
After such an apprenticeship, it was hardly surprising that he would become one of soul music’s most important artists, however low key of a profile he seems to have kept. The familial bonds kept Tony! Toni! Toné! afloat from 1988 to 1996 before Saadiq embarked on a remarkable, genre-defining stint as songwriter and producer for countless others. Occasionally forming part of The Ummah production team alongside Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, James “J Dilla” Yancey, and D’Angelo, Saadiq helped shape neo-soul and had a hand in some of its most important songs, such as the monolithic “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” from D’Angelo’s sophomore album Voodoo (2000). D'Angelo would reciprocate the favor two years later by contributing to the Grammy-nominated "Be Here," one of the official singles released from Instant Vintage.
In addition to his work behind the boards, he formed a super-group with Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Dawn Robinson from En Vogue named Lucy Pearl. However short but sweet their existence was (just one album), it was notable for the continuation of his almost wholly organic approach to soul music, despite others being much more technologically driven.
It was 2002 when he released Instant Vintage, the first wholly representative album of an already outrageously prodigious career. But that year saw radio in thrall to the frenzied tics, fizzes and clicks of the Neptunes and Timbaland, making it clear that such an organically minded work was going to struggle to gain traction. Album sales were disappointing, leading Saadiq to part ways with his label, Universal.
As yet another example of a record company not knowing how to promote an album that wasn’t quite what they’d hoped for, it could have slipped away into the ether. But it didn’t. With all quality albums, there is a home for them in the hearts and minds of music lovers. Indeed, as he himself stated this year in a rare interview with The Quietus, he was perpetually five or so years ahead of the curve with record labels, and so Instant Vintage found a way to be heard to those with open ears.
That same interview revealed a humility and contentment with his place in the world, even if that meant not quite getting the plaudits and praise he undoubtedly deserved, which sits at odds with the title of the album and its apparent self-aggrandizement. However it was in no way meant to sound that way, rather it was a reflection on the state of the music industry at that time (and any time?) and its search for instant gratification and the bestowal of over-inflated importance upon the latest new product.
To get a clearer idea of what was going on, it might have been better to look at the portmanteau that appeared on the rear of the album cover. Having begun his career singing in gospel groups and later discovering the woozy, behind-the-beat approach of J Dilla, “gospeldelic” seemed the perfect encapsulation of who Saadiq was and what the album would sound like.
Over the course of the 19 tracks on offer the thing that stands out, is the same thing that illuminated Solange’s A Seat at the Table last year—namely Saadiq’s effortlessly bubbling bass. Almost every track here comes courtesy of the mellifluous groove that resonates from his strings, dynamic and smooth at every turn. Beyond the bass there is a full palette of classic soul instruments. See-sawing strings cut swathes through “Doing What I Can,” the Rhodes piano on “Body Parts” is so laid back it’s almost lazy, and the fuzzed up Funkadelic guitar of “Tick Tock” knocks the edges off a straight love song.
In “Still Ray” though, Saadiq has one of the 2000s’ best soul tracks, in part due to the totally unexpected, utterly perplexing and brilliantly inventive use of a tuba at its heart. Once the delicate, feathered piano riff has stolen your heart, halfway through the song the tuba kicks the door down and you realize you’ve been suckered. Fooled by your own expectations of what soul music should sound like. It is 3 minutes and 3 seconds of pure joy.
At the other end of the spectrum is the album’s final song “Skyy, Can You Feel Me” with its rolling bass line, choral backing vocals and Saadiq’s plaintive voice. Where “Still Ray” was a study in the value of less-is-more, this expansive, ambitious groove feels like it could go on for days.
Over the course of his next three albums, Saadiq would take a journey back in time. Firstly to the sounds of the mid ‘70s Blaxploitation era (2004’s Ray Ray), then to the halcyon days of early Motown and soul (2008’s The Way I See It), before finally alighting at the glorious sounds of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s (his most recent offering, 2011’s Stone Rollin’). All of which solidifies his standing as an unheralded star of the soul firmament and defender of the eternal flame of funk.
Maybe he was blowing his own trumpet with that title after all, as he certainly had a point and proved it.