Lucy Pearl: Lucy Pearl
FOR A BAND so patently in love with the past, Oakland trio Tony! Toni! Toné! managed never to sound imprisoned by tradition. The group, who broke up after releasing 1996's near-perfect House of Music, may have emulated Marvin and Stevie as blatantly as Lauryn Hill, D'Angelo, and Erykah Badu would soon after, but TTT always did so in the service of pop brightness rather than boho expressionism. The Tonys' production sheen and ruthlessly hooky songwriting lent them an immediacy that resulted in hit after well-deserved hit, but what made those singles compelling was the quirkiness that shone through the professionalism. Much of that off-kilter sensibility can be credited to Raphael Saadiq (formerly Raphael Wiggins), the group's dominant voice, who approached his job with a highly appealing sense of play. Sure, he wanted to get you into bed, but he wasn't afraid to make you laugh once you got there. Far from the prototypical R&B classicist who goes about his task with a grim exactitude, Saadiq sounded like he was having fun.
On Lucy Pearl he still does, maybe more than ever. Joined by En Vogue alumna Dawn Robinson and ex-A Tribe Called Quest DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Saadiq loosens the reins on Tony! Toni! Toné!'s super-tight professionalism without surrendering an ounce of quality control: imagine a radio-friendly R&B album that unfolds as casually as Sebadoh III. The relaxed song construction ("Lucy Pearl's Way" is basically one long verse), emphasis on brevity (only two of fifteen songs exceed four minutes), and patchwork-quilt production lend it an organic aura somewhere between headwraps-and-incense and Converse-and-bongwater.
Rather than following the model of wannabe hits separated by spoken-word skits (like Destiny's Child or TLC) or continuous-mood cultivation (like D'Angelo's Voodoo, which Saadiq and Muhammad helped produce), Lucy Pearl's parts play off one another. "Do It for the People," a stark but playful mantra whose loping bassline wouldn't sound out of place on Voodoo, sets off the slick funk-pop of "You," featuring frisky appearances by Q-Tip and Snoop Dogg. That radio-ready song is in turn thrown into relief by a marching-band reprise of the album's first single, the Chic-styled "Dance Tonight." This building, then juxtaposing, of mood proves as hooky as any of the individual songs--which helps Lucy Pearl close the gap between mainstream luster and open-mic spontaneity with more effervescence than any new R&B act has managed in years.
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