The last 15 years of rhythm & blues have been a wash. A bunch of soft Quiet Storm garbage has been dumped on the listening public, and though the occasional hot track has glistened within, the days of the Great Rhythm & Blues Album, the kind created as a singular entity and not as a collection of potential hit singles, seem to have vanished.
It's easy to forget in the midst of a drought, though, that the rain will one day pour down. In the world of R&B it's drizzling again, and over the course of the next six months it threatens to drench us with some quality groove music, music created both for the home-stereo smoke-a-doobie experience and for cars and clubs.
At the forefront of this new groove moment, along with D'Angelo and Macy Gray (who's the best of the bunch by far), is Angie Stone. Like Gray and D'Angelo, Stone seems to have completely slept through '80s and '90s R&B while dreaming of Marvin Gaye's What's Goin' On, Sly and the Family Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On and Curtis Mayfield's Superfly. It's quite a relief from the manufactured plastic of R. Kelly, Keith Sweat, Mariah and Whitney, who bury the soul in their voices under ridiculous vocal gymnastics and whose underlying music lacks warmth and any indication that living, breathing musicians created it.
You can hear the breathing on Angie Stone's debut, Black Diamond. You can hear a musical conversation between humans, you can hear a bit of grit and you can hear a solid foundation of passion underneath the songs. A Fender Rhodes electric piano kicks off the party, and from there it's Organic City.
What makes Black Diamond interesting, though, is also one of its major problems: Stone behaves as though the last 15 years never happened. The full force of hip-hop is completely ignored, and the result at times reeks of funk nostalgia (Stone's Web site kicks off with a superfly photo of her and her Afro under the banner "Funk Queen"). The song "Green Grass Vapors" even includes a bit of faux LP dust static in its mix. And nostalgia, even that for something as great as '70s funk, is easier to manage than pure artistic inspiration.
But hey, most of us never got the chance to see the Family Stone in 1972, and if Stone's performance has even a fraction of the funk that Black Diamond does, it'll be worth the day and the dollar.