He’s been flirting with the edges of left-wing R&B for years, but bleuphoria may be the first complete plunge Rahsaaan Patterson has made into this pool since his unorthodox holiday album, 2008’s The Ultimate Gift. With bleuphoria, Patterson extends the atypical verse sections of 2007’s Wine and Spirits to wholeheartedly embrace the electronic elements of progressive and electro-soul, turning in an album too melodious to be experimental but too bold for casual consumption.
He’s been flirting with the edges of left-wing R&B for years, but bleuphoria may be the first complete plunge Rahsaaan Patterson has made into this pool since his unorthodox holiday album, 2008’s The Ultimate Gift. With bleuphoria, Patterson extends the atypical verse sections of 2007’s Wine and Spirits to wholeheartedly embrace the electronic elements of progressive and electro-soul, turning in an album too melodious to be experimental but too bold for casual consumption. In an act of moxie, or possibly fool-heartiness, Patterson also places auto-tune and electronic effects on his trademark elastic voice on songs like “God” and “Ghost.” On what is his most collaborative album to-date, Patterson has plenty of A-list talent to help him realize his risky vision, including: Tata Vega, Faith Evans, Jody Watley, Shanice Wilson, Andre Crouch and the Andre Crouch Singers, and, his best friend, Lalah Hathaway. Whether he uses all that star-power and musical daring in a way that fans expect is another thing entirely.
Since his 1997 self-titled debut Patterson fans have come to expect something different and unique from the enigmatic Patterson. While his soulful debut and his 2004 project After Hours remain his most conventional and musically accessible R&B projects to-date, albums like 1999’s Love In Stereo and SoulTracks’ 2007 R&B Album of the Year Wine & Spirits non-traditionally approached R&B to create hybrids of funk, disco, '80s soul pop, and urbane electronica. With exceptions like the spare, near acapella ballad “Miss You” and the panoramic musical feast, “Stay With Me,” bleuphoria fits squarely into the boundary-pushing wing of Patterson’s catalog. With songs like “God” and “Mountaintop,” the disc is spiritual enough in its lyrical themes to be compared to Prince’s The Rainbow Children, and yet with ballads like “Goodbye” it is romantic enough to keep stalwarts from balking at its lengthy experimentations with form and classic verse, hook, verse, bridge and vamp out song structure. Throughout Patterson’s flawless voice is never less than inspired, if occasionally corrupted by tiresome vocal production techniques.
Opening with a “too-soon-since-Chester-Gregory-deftly-covered-it” electro-soul version of The Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes For You,” the disc’s background of shimmering sound effects simulating the twinkle of a star lit sky creates a soothing mood that is echoed in less cluttered productions like “Goodbye” and “Miss You.” The new age funk and synth-heavy ‘80s soul pop mastered by Prince, Cameo, and The Gap Band in the peak Reagan years lays the foundations for the auto-tuned “Ghosts,” the slowed down, vaguely go-go “Crazy,” the Eastern-tinged funk of “Makin’ Love,” and the loosely structured title track. The percussive, midnight drive of the album’s faltering lead single, “Easier Said Than Done,” proved too hard and clinical for fans looking for an artist known for his emotional depth, but the cerebral arrangement—especially the multi-layered bridge—if not warm, is undeniably creative in its execution. This sense of emotional detachment from well-executed material recurs throughout the project, but not often enough to detract.
For a buffet of warmth, fans will have to turn to the album’s musical zenith, “Stay With Me,” a song that sounds like one of those carelessly cut early gem from albums like Love In Stereo or After Hours. With the beautifully played harpsichord’s melancholy opening chords, the ever expanding musical palette boasts horns announcing a blaring love, echoing and submerged sound effects suggesting his love’s depth, and a jazzy doo wop chorus of layered Patterson vocals insisting on his love’s fullness throughout a lyric asking for forgiveness and recommitment. In intricacy, ease, and rhythmic prowess it is easily the most compelling radio-ready track of the bunch. Only the insistently meditative “Mountaintop” matches “Stay With Me” in scope and emotional impact, thanks to an astonishing arrangement showcasing Tata Vega, Andre Crouch and the Andre Crouch Singers.
The album’s second sliver of a single, “6AM,” is a curious exercise in approximating the musical soundscapes of ‘80s R&B, but with its anemic lyrics, over reliance on the hook, and the all-too-familiar synth effects and tepid drum tracks, its originality strains credibility. “Insomnia” suffers in similar and yet different ways; it tries too hard with barely mumbled lyrics and an anthemic power ballad hook that feels oddly out of place in all the cut’s cold, dark moodiness. Contrary to the beliefs of some of our inspiration starved artists of the moment, some of the sounds and production techniques from three decades before really should be left there.
More bewildering than Patterson’s decision to try his hands at gimmicky auto-tunes and to occasionally overindulge in his bath of exhausted ‘80s waters, is to have such an array of talent in the booth and not use them more as co-leads or at least as more prominent supporting vocalists on any track -- except Tata Vega on “Mountaintop” and a brief speaking part by Jody Watley on “Ghost.” It seems a sin to have voices of a generation like Faith Evans, Shanice Wilson, and Lalah Hathaway in the room and relegate them to barely distinctive background singers. Given how urgently his PR people push the fact that never has Patterson collaborated with such a parade of talent on his own project, you long to hear more of them. Long-time collaborators and star producers Keith Crouch, Jamey Jaz and Erik Reicher seem to have stood out of Patterson’s way here, with Patterson reportedly having already delivered a clearly focused project vision and near fully formed songs in advance of studio production, mixing, and mastering. Overall, the ocean of his utopic vision works, though there are moments of murkiness and the waters aren’t always as deep as the myopic drawer of our bath may believe. Recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson