It’s hard to listen to Raphael Saadiq’s new album, “The Way I See It,” without thinking it’s a lost Motown gem.
The record blasts off with “Sure Hope You Mean It,” a song that recalls the finer moments of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Later, Saadiq channels the Temptations on “Keep Marchin'” and “Staying In Love,” which features an effervescent call-and-response over a great rhythm.
The horns on “Big Easy,” courtesy of the Rebirth Brass Band, couple with an incessant guitar and snare drum to create a frantic atmosphere as Saadiq sings “somebody tell me what’s going on/I ain’t seen my baby in far too long.” Think Holland-Dozier-Holland lost in Mardi Gras and you’re almost there.
Saadiq strays from the Motor City to channel the Sound of Philadelphia for “Just One Kiss,” a duet with Joss Stone. Stone shows more restraint on this number than she did on the album Saadiq produced for her last year, “Introducing Joss Stone.” “Calling” starts with a Spanish introduction over flamenco guitar before sliding into a great doo-wop melody.
“Never Give You Up,” another Gamble-Huff-flavored moment, is the stand-out track. The arrangement pulls the listener in before Saadiq’s smooth voice kicks in, and the magnificent, swirling chorus seals the deal. That Stevie Wonder’s cameo after the third verse does not feel forced, speaks to the organic vibe Saadiq has not only created here, but sustained over most of the record.
The only misstep is the album-closing remix of “Oh Girl” featuring Jay-Z. While he offers some of his most soulful rapping to date – at points Jay-Z is nearly singing – the hip hop intrusion breaks the spell and rudely slams the album into the present.
Despite this, Saadiq’s third album is the best of his career. “The Way I See It” is more focused than his 2004 sophomore effort, “Ray Ray,” and tighter than his bloated (but otherwise excellent) debut “Instant Vintage.” From the sound of the guitar and the echo on drums to the mix and arrangement of the backing vocals, everything is spot-on. Even the timing is right – most songs are between two and three minutes.
Motown tributes are a dime a dozen. What elevates “The Way I See It” above the score of old school knock-offs is that it goes beyond the paint-by-numbers approach to inhabit and invigorate the true spirit of the music.
Below: The video for “Love That Girl.”