Six years ago when I started working as a music critic in New York City, one of my first assignments was to cover the album release party for Mahogany Soul, Angie Stone's sophomore album. The venue was right off Times Square. The street in front of the place was littered with handbills featuring a pretty face shot of a gloriously Afro'd Stone. As gusty winds blew them about, a long, long line snaked into the building.
Inside, I was surrounded by cliquish industry folks and publicists wearing fixed smiles. But once Stone and her powerful 10-piece band took the stage, looking stylish in matching peach-colored leather outfits, the pretension in the room evaporated. The South Carolina-born soul singer gave a stomping performance, baptizing the glitzy Manhattan crowd in the funky depths of her music. A few months later, Mahogany Soul went gold. It delivered on the promise and repeated the sales of her uneven debut, 1999's Black Diamond. After fumbling with 2004's half-hearted Stone Love, the singer-songwriter returns with perhaps her best album to date, The Art of Love & War, out this week.
The CD is her debut for the reactivated Stax label. And it makes perfect sense that an artist like Stone, whose music is strongly rooted in the sensual and uplifting ethos of '70s R&B;, would be recording for a company with such a rich and fabled history in soul.
"Ain't it funny how God works?" Stone says. "It seemed like it was inevitable that I was gonna be on that label that started in Memphis. I've been working with this great producer from Memphis named Jonathan Richmond. This boy is talented, no more than about 30. He worked with me on this new album."
The CD, produced by Stone and Collin Stanback, is the most consistent one the singer has done. I've always loved her style -- the way her voice sears a hard funk groove or turns mink-soft and caresses a melody. But Stone's previous efforts tended to lose steam toward the end. Although Mahogany Soul was studded with gems, it would have been much tighter had a few blah songs been extracted. And Stone Love, her last album for J Records, lacked complete focus.
"Let me tell you about that one," says the down-home artist, calling from Los Angeles. "Originally, that album was called Diary of a Soul Sister. It was gonna be set up with me working with icons like Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan, Roberta Flack, Natalie Cole. ... But Alicia Keys [Stone's J Records label mate] was gonna use the title The Diary of Alicia Keys. So I was asked to change my concept. The focus was derailed on the last album, and I asked to be released after that."
The label switch to Stax has brought the musical focus back. On The Art of Love & War, Stone achieves cohesiveness, maintaining a relaxed mood. The 14-track album is heavy on cushiony ballads and mid-tempo cuts kissed by the artist's shimmery vocals. Stone explores the ups and downs of love without resorting to histrionics or fussy production.
Most of the songs are deftly built on samples. The first single, the groove-rich radio hit "Baby," folds in the undulating bass line of Curtis Mayfield's "Give Me Your Love" and features Betty Wright, the '70s soul star and Stone's good friend.
"That's my girl," the artist says. "Our birthdays are two days apart, so we have that Sagittarius thing going on. ... She sang the third verse I had done and I was like, 'Yes, Betty had to be on this.' I didn't want her in the background. I wanted her out front with me."
Other guests include Pauletta Washington on the reflective "Happy Being Me" and James Ingram on the keep-the-faith number "My People." Stone excels as the seductress on "Sit Down." And on the swaggering "Play Wit It," she reaches back to her days with the early '80s hip-hop group Sequence. Although several songs on the new album deal with the bleak side of love (kicking a fool to the curb, mending a broken heart), the singer addresses the pain unblinkingly but gently. With its tinkling minor-key piano chords and swooning background vocals, "Make It Last" is one of the most tender kiss-offs I've heard. It's my favorite cut on the album.
"Baby, that song gets to you, OK?" says Stone, a mother of a grown daughter and a 10-year-old son. "I love this music. I love the gift God has given me. But let me tell you: It's been a war to stay in this business. You have to love what you do to stay in it."
Angie Stone still shines as a soul survivor.