There have been times when Mint Condition has been a little too true to its name.
In the '90s, the St. Paul R&B band established its own sound while feeling contemporary with the music of that moment. But in the quarter-century since, Mint Condition didn't always keep evolving, instead preserving that signature groove in its pristine state.
Stepping out temporarily on his own has been good for the group's singer and drummer, Stokley Williams, who left his surname as well as his bandmates behind for his first solo album, Introducing Stokley (out last Friday). As crafted by the Philly production/songwriter duo of Carvin Haggins and Ivan Barrias, who devised Musiq Soulchild's liquid sound back around the turn of the century and worked on some of Jill Scott's sharper tracks as well, the mood is both retro and adventurous, revisiting past R&B styles not to merely recreate them, but in order to plot new directions they might have taken.
Throughout Introducing, Stokley regales women with unceasing romantic flattery. “Art in Motion” compares the object of his seduction to the work of Beethoven, Misty Copeland, Maya Angelou, and Quincey Jones -- all in one verse -- before crossover-friendly jazzman Robert Glasper lays down an elegant but knotty piano solo. And on the lead single, “Level,” after a freewheeling rhythm guitar intro, Stokley dishes out unexpected come-ons (“I'm a sucker for your body type”) along with pledges of supportive affection as voices swirl about to combine in surprising harmonies.
What set Stokley apart in the '90s was his ability to profess love and project confidence simply where so many oversinging competitors (some more commercially successful) whined strenuously straight from the groin. When Stokley does get explicit here, he's playful -- follow the rhetorical curlicues on this lyric, from the vocoder-treated electrofunk workout of “Hold My Breath”: “How many licks will it take/ To get you to climax?/ Hold up/ That came out the wrong way./ Never mind I meant that.”
As Introducing forges on, the tracks get entertainingly weird. Slapping hand drums and wobbly electronic steel drums compete for rhythmic space on “Victoria,” which ends with a sobbing Stokley consoled by a female voice, even as he protests that he's singing, not crying. (There's a reprise of the same tune a few tracks later, with drunken horns.) And when Stokley plays up natural living on “Organic,” her offers a woman who wants coffee with sugar some herbal tea with turmeric instead. The guests are a mixed bag: Glasper shines, as does cool British soul gal Estelle, but hearing Wale rap that he's “harder than trigonometry” is a little jarring, and this is not the comeback slot that OMI (of “Cheerleader” fame) has hoped for. But overall Introducing Stokley offers a sense of how R&B can be plenty adventurous without somehow “transcending” its genre, and how it can sound contemporary without chasing trends.