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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.”

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)