Raphael Saadiq is ecstatic. After years as a minor hitmaker in Toni! Tony! Toné! and a consistent but conventional solo debut, he took a risk on a sincere little collection of attempted Motown shorties, and what do you know, he's a minor cause celebre again. 2008's The Way I See It wasn't just true to its sources aesthetically (songs prematurely fading out before the third minute), it was nearly perfect, too, not a second wasted on anything uncatchy or without a head-turning bassline. Don't think neo-soul, think "Signed Sealed Delivered (I'm Yours)" or "Son of a Preacher Man."
A Grammy nod later, Saadiq's in the most enviable position on Stone Rollin', like Jeff Tweedy ready to experiment further into the abyss on A Ghost Is Born or Tom Waits carving out the greater, later half of his career with Kathleen Brennan. He's a position to do what he wants and be praised for doing just that. In R&B, this happens about as rarely as R. Kelly writes about chastity. So what to do—stay in this unexpected new dugout? The Way I See It was likely conceived as a novelty, and Saadiq poured everything he had into it, so Stone Rollin' comes a little less organically, the sequel an industry vet didn't anticipate having the chance to make. He's still a great minor talent, so it works anyway. The repetitious funk vamps at the beginning ("Heart Attack," "Radio") sound like the man in the studio trying to come up with more two-minute gold, but they're about a minute too long and they never settle down.
Once your ears adjust to the spattered looseness of this album's more jagged retro, it finds the nuance and hidden corners that The Way I See It's restlessness didn't take a break for: "The Answer" is a sprawling, complex little ballad that finds room for both unfettered beauty and tasteful orchestration, and "Stone Rollin'" grooves a nasty little guitar riff into the ground and dances on it with both flute and harmonica. Is that a little inauthentic, splicing two different rhythm and blues eras together like that? Saadiq's ace in the hole is that he ultimately doesn't care about the history lesson—which is why he let Joss Stone and Jay-Z chime in for color last time—as long as the music's hot.