Raphael Saadiq

Didn't take long for neo-soul or whatever you wanna call it--Raphael Saadiq prefers "gospeldelic," it seems--to become another ghetto, another programming block on MTV, another marketing tool, a sticker on a jewel case, a recommended-if-you-like shrug. Even an album title, judging from former Tony Toni Toné singer Saadiq's solo debut. The smog of overpopulation swallows another breath of fresh air. Oh, well. Happens. Let's not make a big thing out of it. Still beats the R&Beeyatch batch of cash-money collabs, where either Ja Rule or Ashanti (or both) are somehow contractually required to appear on pretty much every sell-your-soul single for the forseeable future. (Or maybe it just feels like that.) And at least we have plenty of Arethas (and in Saadiq, who handles most of the instruments on Instant Vintage, one Stevie) to choose from for our generation's inevitable Big Chill.

Had Saadiq released this a couple of years ago, instead of wasting his time with En Vogue ex Dawn Robinson in the short-lived Lucy Pearl, he could have set the tone instead of merely attempting to harmonize with the chorus. Probably. As is, he pours his new-old soul into an old-old mold, following the same surprisingly rigid set of rules that have governed R&B for the past decade: the intro, the outro, the skit, the experiment, the cameo, the crossover potential, the bandwagon jump, the quiet-storm hump. He's competent and confident, but that only makes Instant Vintage listenable, not an album that demands to be listened to--big difference--and even the disc's celebrity casting (D'Angelo, Angie Stone and TLC's Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins all stop by for a cup of coffee) doesn't do much to change that. Too bad there aren't more songs like "Still Ray," which pairs tuba belches with piano plinks recycled from Dr. Dre's "Forgot About D.R.E"; not many can deliver come-on-come-ons like "You don't have to beg/Me to come to bed" backed by marching-band instrumentation.