Introducing Joss Stone
or a fan of Olde-Soul, Neo-Soul has been an occasionally unforgiving creature. Brassy, vampish, vacant in its slower moments, airbrushing the wrinkles and kinks that made classic soul compelling in the first place, reducing sex to a kind of god-given bling rather than a never-ending struggle between yourself and your desires. “Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa” is a great song not because it is perfectly constructed (it is) but because it is the sound of Otis Redding parlaying his imperfections for the sublime.
Introducing… is a great leap forward from Joss Stone’s previous two efforts, but it only has a slippery grasp of the principle of sublime imperfections. The best listening poise is partially abstracted, and not just because the lyrics are magnificently limp, caught between a good girl’s sexual bashfulness and de rigeur business about “loving” and such. Stone’s voice hasn’t entirely shaken the grating precociousness; too much attention to her vocal lines is rewarded only in patches. But unlike previous albums, Introducing…’s pays off once in a while, with a belly-thumping bellow, a single-note rant, or the murderously languorous crescendos of “Girl They Won’t Believe It.”
If we lived in a just world, Stone would have sung behind a mentor—Angie Stone, D’Angelo, or even Macy Gray—for an appropriate apprenticeship before stepping out on her own. Instead, her more-than-modest talents were overexposed before anyone had much of an idea what she might actually be capable, least of all the sixteen-year-old Stone herself. As neo-soul’s pet white girl, Stone’s handlers have made heavy going of her authenticity, dragging out of retirement old hands with nicknames like “Little Beaver” and “Peewee,” with results that seldom rose above well-intentioned fetishism.
That gives you all the more reason to tip your hat to Stone’s newfound producer, the magnificent Raphael Saadiq. He’s the first to be able to deliver on the revivalist promise of Stone’s money-spinning voice, splicing turntables and bigbeat kickdrums with disco-descended strings and clean guitar chops. On “Put Your Hands On Me,” Saadiq cribs a Timbaland beat for a more thoroughly retrospective effort than Tim has ever permitted himself. Since I could never imagine Missy Elliot letting Tim get all that close, I would also like to make a nomination for hottest producer/performer maybe-romance in ages; Exhibit One is the strangely frank, naked photo of Stone in Saadiq’s lap beneath the disc (symbolic placing, you’ll note). Broken up with the Dozier boy, Stone gets all like “I’m in love with my music” and apparently Saadiq plays it right. He also plays a mean and unexpectedly melodic bass guitar, particularly on the slinky, low-slung tribute to love-like-addiction “Bad Habit”
Stone’s lyrics—almost all her own, for the first time—aim no higher than pragmatic pop, and on that slightly conservative scale, the album scores impressively well. “Headturner” has a stellar rhythm track that splits the difference between Booker T and Mark Ronson’s revivalism. Winehouse would never bother crowing about being a “headturner,” she’s too busy kinking necks and upchucking in the aisles. “What Were We Thinking,” on the other hand, is rather too aptly named—but I’d still take most of Stone’s ballads over Missy’s.
Introducing… features two thoroughly rank guest verses: predictably sanctimonious from Common (has there ever been a more aptly-named rapper?), inevitably pretentiously screw-loose from Lauryn Hill. It’s a shame that Stone and Saadiq fall for the name-dropping approach to making records; inserted like ad-breaks, the guests are easily the worst thing on the album, giving a strong whiff of one of those horrible kitchen-sink-and-rolodex stinkers in the middle of a really very good, if conservative, soul record.