Beats, With a Touch of Blues

Raphael Saadiq.Photo: Will Blochinger

When it comes to excavating and re-interpreting sounds from the seventies, the producer Raphael Saadiq is peerless. Along with Teddy Riley, Saadiq helped fashion the mutant pop-hip-hop “new-jack swing” sound of the early nineties. Then, in 2002, he trumped neo-soul’s conservative take on the seventies with his solo debut, Instant Vintage, on which he honed the sprawling orchestral style of the sixties Philly soul icons Gamble and Huff into short, sharp shocks of electronic music.

Instant Vintage quickly found fans in Europe—illicit remixes even helped spawn a new genre in the U.K. called “pirate soul”—but the album was ignored by American critics infatuated with the minimal, mechanical sounds of the Neptunes and Timbaland. And thoughInstant Vintage was nominated for three Grammys, the record struggled to find an audience among R&B fans accustomed to teenage superstars and a neo-soul scene that found Saadiq weird and insufficiently reverential about the seventies soul sources he riffed on.

“Saadiq turns barrel clicks and gunshots into a rhythm section on the startlingly inventive ‘Rifle Love.’ ”

Saadiq’s follow-up, Raphael Saadiq as Ray Ray, should offer an opportunity for latecomers to catch up with his sound, even though Saadiq, like Prince before him, isn’t particularly interested in accommodating outsiders. Ray Ray is supposed to be a concept album, with Saadiq “starring” as a blaxploitation hero, but Saadiq bafflingly drops the concept soon after the album’s opening track, “Blaxploitation.” You wonder why he even bothered.

Despite its faults—and there are many: the thin Curtis Mayfield imitation of “Grown Folks,” the glib love song “Detroit Girl”—Ray Ray is a startlingly inventive record. Saadiq turns barrel clicks and gunshots into a rhythm section on “Rifle Love,” compresses gospel-style “mmms” and aqueous seventies-era keyboard funk into “Chic Like You,” and seamlessly melds Miami bass and electro-style synth twitches on “I Want You Back.”

When, near the end of the gorgeous, ruminative “Not a Game,” Saadiq asks, “Do you think that men don’t hurt?,” the lyric threatens to push the song into purplish sentiment. But it doesn’t—Saadiq is too careful with his voice (more conversational than croon) and too sparse in his production to be overemotive. He has a real sense of the blues that few of his producer peers can approximate, particularly Pharrell Williams of the Neptunes, who seems perpetually frozen in a come-on. Though he harbors blaxploitation aspirations, Saadiq is at his best when he revives the sad soul of Sam Cooke.

Lady Saw possesses the heaviest Jamaican patois in dancehall reggae, as well as the bark of a dominatrix. In her vernacular, hips are “eeps,” and dancehall’s rapid-fire singing style becomes something resembling a Marine drill sergeant’s command. It’s a blunt vocal instrument that makes the XXX-rated raunch-reggae of her new CD, Strip Tease, sound almost viscerally filthy, a fresh blast of nastiness that’s reminiscent of the earliest records from the 2 Live Crew and Schooly D. And Lady Saw elicits gasps from her listeners that female rappers like Trina and Ciara (who have made pornographic material rote and aggressive) could only wish for. The best boundary-pusher on Strip Tease is “Pretty Pussy,” whose bizarre mix of explicitness and empowerment on its chorus (“Black and beautiful / Pink and fruitiful”) makes it equal parts Eve Ensler and Lil’ Kim. Lady Saw is helped by production—diwali-style hand claps, percussive stomps, and blippy synth-driven sound effects—that is the best and most lively in dancehall reggae since Sean Paul’s breakthrough 2002 Dutty Rock. Even the awkward photos of Lady Saw inside the CD booklet (she’s pictured with a mannish scowl, an ill-fitting platinum wig, and thick fishnetted legs) perfectly complement the vision of Strip Tease: It’s sex as funk and foulness, not perfume and prettiness.

Beats, With a Touch of Blues