Although genre revivals are always suspect, the retro-soul movement of the late ’90s felt like the right comeback at the right time. By then, mainstream R&B had become mechanized and impersonal, a stampede of thunderous beats and tiny voices. Perhaps the moment had come to revisit the days when ultra-supple grooves, equally lithe yet hearty lover men (and women), genuine musicianship, and crisp songwriting (as opposed to an overreliance on samples) set the tone for soul. The division between the two styles even affected the Grammys: There are now categories for Best R&B Album (old-school and retro acts) and Best Contemporary R&B Album (the dance-club divas).
As welcome as it was, though, retro-soul hasn’t always fulfilled its promise. Like alt-country, another offshoot that presented itself as a less polished substitute for what was dominating the airwaves, the new soul remains oddly unformed. For every Lauryn Hill or D’Angelo, a lesser act merely apes Stevie Wonder. Too often, retro-soul comes off as short on personality and even shorter on material; real drums and wah-wah guitars aren’t always enough. But what is it that’s missing?
Stone Love, the third disc from retro-soul queen Angie Stone, provides helpful clues. ”Stone Love” fuses the singer’s throaty chops with head-over-heels lyrics and rhythms that lie somewhere between vintage soul and mild-mannered hip-hop; the vibe is akin to a romantic midday stroll through the park. Like its two predecessors, it sways pleasurably from start to finish, buoyed by floaty old-school R&B like ”I Wanna Thank Ya” (her warmhearted appreciation song) and ”Lovers’ Ghetto.” It’s easy to luxuriate in its cushy production, to nod along with the occasionally clever line (”This is tragic, like when Michael left the Jacksons,” in the Missy Elliott-produced ”U-Haul”), or to enjoy the duo Floetry’s stern-voiced harmonies on the devotional ”My Man.” Everything is balmy, modestly funky — and strangely devoid of outright passion. Even songs infused with anger over broken relationships, like ”You Don’t Love Me” and ”Come Home (Live With Me)” — the latter about an unwed mother asking her wayward spouse to return — lack emotional firepower. It’s all so tasteful that it verges on conservatism.