Angie Stone - Unexpected (2009)

Share this article
    Angie Stone
    AngieStoneUnexpectedFinal110.png
    Click on CD cover
    to listen or purchase

    The Mother of Neo-soul has been many things in a career that has spanned three decades, including a trend setter. But, I've never known Angie Stone to be trendy, certainly not as trendy as she is on her sophomore project for Stax Records, Unexpected. If the trend these days is to write hooky songs about flying above all the drama and turning a deaf ear to all the haters and naysayers, then Stone is in the home zone. Her danceable lead single, "I Ain't Hearin' You," and a few other tracks are filled with self-esteem building survival anthems that protest too much over insistent basslines. With catchy choruses galore, the newly trendy Stone solidly transitions to a more urban R&B sound without losing a speck of old school credibility.

    The Mother of Neo-soul has been many things in a career that has spanned three decades, including a trend setter. But, I've never known Angie Stone to be trendy, certainly not as trendy as she is on her sophomore project for Stax Records, Unexpected. If the trend these days is to write hooky songs about flying above all the drama and turning a deaf ear to all the haters and naysayers, then Stone is in the home zone. Her danceable lead single, "I Ain't Hearin' You," and a few other tracks are filled with self-esteem building survival anthems that protest too much over insistent basslines. With catchy choruses galore, the newly trendy Stone solidly transitions to a more urban R&B sound without losing a speck of old school credibility. Yet, what is most unexpected aren't Stone's earnestly trendy joints: it's the emotionally fulfilling cuts from a different era - yes, even different than the Motown and PIR days Stone usually mines --  that make Unexpected a most delightful surprise.

    In some ways, Stone's return to an urbane flavor is a return to her early musical roots. The thirty-year veteran was among the female pioneers of hip hop with her group, Sequence, in the 80s. Though limited as hitmakers, the singing and rapping ladies have the distinction of being the first group to blend hip hop and soul, nearly a full decade before singer Mary J. Blige and producer Sean "Puffy" Combs took the credit.

    But since the 80s, Stone has become better known as the Mother of Neo-soul, first as the lead singer of Vertical Hold, a group that gave her baby's daddy, D'Angelo, his first break. In addition to influencing the groove heavy sound of her now legendary ex, Stone stood out on her own with trademark simple melodies, doo wop harmonies and old samples meets new school bounce on her solo debut hit, "No More Rain In This Cloud." The Grammy-award winning formula took Stone to platinum status for the first time in her career, and it was one she would successfully stick to for the next five albums.

    There are traces of that Stone on ‘90s quiet storm ballads like "Kiss All Over Your Body" and "Why Is It," but these are bluer expressions of Stone. The promissory note that gets paid in full on this project is another song that could have been cut in the hi-top decade, "Maybe." "Maybe" also is the most smartly written and arranged of the entire set, with an ear for real storytelling, well-placed supporting harmonies and a flow that screams another serious hit for Stone, if properly pushed. On songs like "Maybe" and "Kiss All Over Your Body," what is perhaps most interesting is to hear Stone do the kind of ‘90s soul that was popular on the radio at a time when she was alternatively nurturing a traditional, more organic soul. Now, Stone reaches back and nails a sound that she once left to artists like Syleena Johnson and Lil' Mo. Only the Nixon era soul of "I Found A Keeper" and the 60s retro "Think Sometimes" can easily fit on sets like Black Rain or Stone Love.   

    As Stone takes Unexpected to the dance floor, she manages to hold the line, keeping the songs bumping, but for a decidedly older crowd. With mid-tempo dance grooves like "Hey Mr. DJ" and the toast-to-wisdom, "I Don't Care," Stone gives mature audiences densely produced, bobble heads they can two-step to without breaking a sweat.  The lead single, "I Ain't Hearing You," with its plucky guitar and rhythmic bass lines, strongly follows suit. Since Stone "ain't hearin'" nobody and "don't care" what people say about her, I'm sure she won't hear that we need more from "I AIn't Hearin' You" than a great hook (and it is a great one) to make us believe it a complete song. Don't listen too closely to the zero-calorie lyrics on any of these; just enjoy the grooves.

    Keeping with things that go boom, but say little, Stone ignores the hands that feed her and chases younger, auto-tuned trends with synth pop anthems "Tell Me" and the Rhianna throw-away cut, "Free," which sadly is derivative to a fault. The songs aren't unbearable; they just are unworthy of a veteran artist of Ms. Stone's laudable caliber.

    The unexpected of Unexpected doesn't come in the easy dance cuts or the embarrassing youth-seeking moments. It comes through songs that highlight a gifted Stone's consistent ability to go back into any decade of song and make her mark as the creator of simple, convincingly beautiful songs with a familiar, timeless appeal. Maybe she's just too close to this generation of song to nail it now, but if Stone's take on 60s, 70s, and now 90s soul are any indication, she'll be able to give the electronic sounds of Rihanna, Ciara, and Keri Hilson a run for their money. Just not now. Recommended.

    By L. Michael Gipson

     
    Choice Cut - Jennifer Hartswick - "For You"