Why hasn’t Rahsaan Patterson blown all the way up? Why is he the treasurer in that club of criminally slept-on soul singers — president: Rachelle Ferrell; vice president: Ledisi; secretary: Donnie; international representative: Lewis Taylor — who struggle so far beneath the radar of pop visibility that the machine barely even registers their presence?

Having already dropped two critically acclaimed cult-item CDs (his eponymous 1997 debut, which featured the radio hit "Where You Are," and 1999’s Love in Stereo), he’s more than proved his chops as singer, songwriter, producer and live performer. The usual reasons for neglect apply, of course, including the sharpest thorn: inept handling by the major label that was once the L.A.-based artist’s professional home; the new After Hours was released stateside on the Artistry Music label (in which Patterson is a co-owner) in the wake of European and Japanese versions earlier this year. But there’s also a diminished audience for genuinely soulful soul music. Many contemporary R&B heads have been Pavloved to drool at that artless entity known as the R&B thug while completely sidestepping the real deal.

That last kink might be the root of the problem. Rah, as he’s called by fans, cites Chaka Khan as his major influence, which shows (often to his detriment, but ever less so) in the way he bends notes, in a lot of his enunciation and in the abandon with which he gives himself to the music. And his lyrics illuminate love songs about loss, vulnerability, longing and pain, sung in an expansive voice that embodies all those elements. His joy is unfettered, uncloaked. That kind of naked emotionalism renders almost any male in American culture suspect, but especially if he’s of the Negro persuasion, and most especially if the emotion is not exaggeratedly countered with macho or thug signifiers.

Heavy on midtempo tunes and ballads, After Hours is anything but a treatise on machismo. It finds its greatest strength in the way it encompasses many expressive tones and atmospheric colors without ever being forced or unfocused, sliding from gently introspective to hip-swiveling sexy, from seductive funk to airy memory poem, without ever losing its footing. A highlight is "The Best," a tender kiss-off to an undeserving lover co-written by the underrated Van Hunt; the delicacy of the situation is captured in a sensitive vocal by Patterson and a complementary woodwinds-and-piano framework. Hunt also co-wrote, co-produced and played all the instruments on three other songs, and the blending of his flavor with Patterson’s provides some of the album’s strongest moments. He pushes Rah to set aside the Chaka-isms, and the results are stellar — Patterson sports a sexy Prince-like falsetto on "Burnin’" (whose reworking of an old Ohio Players hook is beyond smooth), and he’s vaguely reminiscent of vintage Stevie Wonder on "The Best."

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Though rooted in classic R&B, Hours never suffers from the self-consciousness that afflicts so many of Patterson’s peers who mine similar terrain. The singer is finally refining his signature style, using his heroes as a jumping-off point and not a blueprint. Check out the way he rides the thick, funkily arranged backing vocals on the catchy sing-along "I Always Find Myself," or on "So Hot," the album’s call to the dance floor — a throwback to late-’70s and early-’80s club R&B (think Atlantic Starr) sans vintage-chic affectation, where the interplay between Rah and his backup crew is gleefully sexy, accented with horns, a jittery guitar, and a call & response that’s pure church. Speaking of the backup crew, in addition to Van Hunt, please welcome Jamey Jaz, Derrick Walker, Devel McKenzie, the legendary Steve "Silk" Hurley, and shoulda-been-a-contenda singer Trina Broussard, among many others. Some are longtime collaborators, others are new to the fold. But they work so cohesively that the effect is one of seasoned pros vibing, pushing one another to do their best.

This isn’t groundbreaking, genre-reshaping work; it’s just a collection of melodious, well-written songs. Sexy, sad, playful, reflective. Excellent.

RAHSAAN PATTERSON | After Hours | (Artistry Music)

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