Angie Stone doesn’t care for the ”neo-soul” tag that’s usually affixed to her, Alicia Keys, Maxwell, and other Donny-come-latelies who color their balladry with shades of classic R&B. She finds the prefix marginalizing, preferring the term real soul, thank you. But if you want to call Stone ”the queen of neo-soul,” as some have, ”it doesn’t bother me,” chuckles J Records kingpin Clive Davis. ”Some artists do chafe at the narrowness of that category. But having royalty in my blood, with Aretha being the queen of soul” — Davis helped shepherd Franklin through her own reign — ”it’s almost nice that they came up with ‘neo-soul,’ so you don’t have the conflict.”
Aretha might abdicate her throne to get the kind of notices Angie’s garnered lately. Los Angeles Times critic Robert Hilburn called her Mahogany Soul one of only three 4-star albums of 2001 (along with Bob Dylan’s and the White Stripes’). Critics for USA Today, EW, and the Daily News also included her sophomore release among their top 10s. Mahogany was just as red-hot in Billboard, where it tied with labelmate Alicia Keys’ Songs in A Minor for third-best album of the year.
Missing: Keys-level sales and visibility. Maybe the first single was a bit too brave to get the project off to a blockbuster start. ”Brotha” assumes the onus of rehabilitating the image of African-American men on urban radio after years of ”No Scrubs”-style disses. And though it’s as catchy as anything out, it may be asking too much even of ghetto-obsessed white kids to walk down the street singing ”I love you, my black brotha, strong brotha…” But no one can fault the attempt at musical mending. ”I think that my brothers have caught a lot of duff in the game,” says Stone. ”And I wanted to spearhead all of the women in music to not be so hard on our men through song. Because we can only be so many bitches, and they can only be so many dogs. After you run out of that, what are you? You’re queens and kings.”
Sing it, sister. Of course, positivity can be a bitch, commercially speaking. But Stone rues how hip-hop’s mutual sexual antagonism has helped poison the relationship between the sexes: ”People use that platform to vent,” she says, in a rasp of a voice barely hinted at in her smooth stage chops. ”What I don’t want to do is follow it up to the point where our entire society of music is filled with that kind of venom. Somebody has to balance the scales.”
Stone may sound like a hip-hop outsider, but when it comes to rap, the 37-year-old diva has been there, abandoned that. As ”Angie B,” the Columbia, S.C., native cofounded the first female rap trio of any note, Sequence, in the early ’80s, forgoing a basketball scholarship. Later she completed an unremarkable R&B trio called Vertical Hold and toured as a sax player with Lenny Kravitz. ”I’ve deviated from soul music, tried to keep up with what was going on, flavor of the month. Did not work for me,” she says, a true fundamentalist.
What did work was cowriting and coproducing D’Angelo’s 1995 Brown Sugar, oft regarded as the birth of neo-soul. The pair also collaborated on Stone’s second child, Michael D’Angelo Archer II, now 4. (Daughter Diamond is 17.) That waning alliance spawned headaches when her own Black Diamond debuted in 1999. ”I spent a lot of time defending myself. My life was such an open book that I’d never had a chance to redefine who I was. A lot of people thought I was bouncing back from heartbreak. I had to prove that I was somebody before I was a baby-mama” — that is, mama to a superstar’s kid — ”and I didn’t like that.”