ANGIE STONEBlack Diamond (Arista)
Angie Stone‘s Black Diamond, a ’70s-style black-femme opus that just happened to appear at the tail end of the ‘90s, is one of this year’s best albums for a number of reasons, one of them being the gaps it fills in. At its center is a deeply soulful, technically adept voice that astonishes with dead-on Chaka Khan flourishes; repeated listenings reveal an earthiness and robustness that, while similar to Khan‘s, are a little more rooted in inner-city juke joints than in Chaka’s jazz sessions. The musicianship and production (simmering keyboards, lovely background-vocal arrangements, Stone‘s vocals placed front and center) don’t merely conjure up memories of gold-hoop earrings, black-velvet paintings and platform shoes (though they do that as well), but retrieve and underscore the emotional truths of old-school soul music, reminding us that it‘s those truths — and not the kitschy artifacts of the recent past — that we’ve really been jonesing for.
At the end of “No More Rain (In This Cloud),” the first single (a sample from Gladys Knight‘s “Neither One of Us” is the track’s backbone), Stone unleashes a viscera-stroking wail that has nothing to do with diva flash and everything to do with the sheer joy of singing with cathartic release. “Bone 2 Pic (Wit U),” produced by A Tribe Called Quest‘s Ali Shaheed Muhammad, is a sweet buzz of layered vocals, gently strummed guitars and the most bitter of lyrics. A cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” becomes a women‘s anthem, while “Everyday,” co-written by D’Angelo (Stone‘s baby daddy), is pure bottom-heavy funk, a tune made for the repeat button.
As a teenager, Stone was a member of the groundbreaking hip-hop trio Sequence (“Funk You Up”) and later earned cult heroine status in the underrated, defunct R&B group Vertical Hold. She writes and produces (or co-produces) her own music; she’s earned her stripes on her own merit. But she also belongs in that retro collective (D‘Angelo, Erykah, Maxwell, Lauryn, Me’Shell) who look to the past to map out their — and black music‘s — future. More important than aesthetics, though, are the adult tones Stone and this crew give voice to. And that’s the most crucial gap she‘s filling — bringing the sound of a grown-ass woman back to R&B.