With each subsequent release, the liquid-voiced Rahsaan Patterson edges closer to the outskirts of r&b. Originally lumped in with that group of singers that formed the “neo-soul” movement in the late ’90s and early ’00s, Patterson cut his teeth on accessible (albeit very accomplished) soul throwbacks; his output this millennium isn’t overly abstract or gratingly experimental – far from it – but his willingness to expand outward and expound on his unique sensibilities have granted him immeasurable artistic success. Wines & Spirits thrilled eardrums in 2007 – it’s a terrific album, in case you were wondering, peppering gushing ballads into an exhilarating stew of funk corkers and 70’s soul rave-ups hand-crafted for Heaven’s dance floors – and the intervening years have whetted appetites for the newest release by an artist that, if his career followed his impressive upward trajectory, promised to be his best yet. Fortunately, Bleuphoria doesn’t disappoint.
In fact, it enthralls almost immediately; brazenly, Patterson opens Bleuphoria with a dreamy cover of The Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes For You”. It’s the kind of cover that sounds passe on paper – it’s basically a standard, after all, covered into oblivion by scores of artists before Rahsaan – but works like gangbusters in practice, due to a spacey electro arrangement and an ecstatic, elastic lead vocal. And there it is – Rahsaan has worked his magic again, and all is well with the world. “Ghost” traffics in late-80s Prince vibes, insidiously funky and with an unbridled squeal crouching in the background, springing up every few bars or so; Faith Evans drops background vocals into infectious head-nodder “Crazy (Baby)”, to excellent effect; a chorale of layered Pattersons snakes through the very heart of single “Easier Said Than Done”, cutting right through an ominous bed of Sign o’ the Times funk.
Cohesion has never been one of Patterson’s selling points – not because he’s incapable of it, no, but because he’s fond of thrilling stylistic detours and sudden left turns – but here’s what’s terrific about Bleuphoria: this is an album, first and foremost, a work of musical art that flows nicely and allows the listener to settle into a very specific vibe for the record’s duration. In the digital age, this is not a feat to be dismissed lightly – even the best examples of the art form seem to be reaching for some single appeal, and the worst ones attempt to position every track as a potential smash hit. Truth is, that electro-funk vibe that characterizes the first few songs generally carries through the rest of the album; considering that Patterson’s sphere of influence seems to always contain more than a little bit of prime-era Prince and Chaka Khan, it works way, way more often than it doesn’t, and “doesn’t work” is all relative in Patterson’s musical universe. “6 A.M.”, for example, is a minor track, coming and going quickly and leaving little impact; but it doesn’t feel expendable, just a particular installment of the vibe that doesn’t manage to stick out. Patterson makes up for this in other areas, naturally – “Mountain Top” is a slow-simmering gospel number that crash-lands into a heavenly Andrae Crouch Singers vocal arrangement, for example, and it’s an absolute monolith of a track that practically demands attention. Meanwhile, “Insomnia” seems to traffic in the same slow-burn vibes of the rest of the record, a militant, insistent drumbeat and a hushed, passionate vocal; and then, a massive, stomping power-ballad chorus, and nirvana has been achieved.
With one foot planted firmly in the retro-soul camp with the likes of Anthony Hamilton and the other in outer space with Erykah Badu and Van Hunt, Rahsaan is the best of r&b’s both worlds. Blessed with an octave-scaling, silky-smooth singing voice, he’s a gifted arranger with a knack for sending his songs into the mysterious caverns on the outskirts of their landscapes, and even innovative enough to apply AutoTune, mainstream pop and r&b’s most increasingly irritating crutch, to terrific effect, deploying only when the song calls for Rahsaan to sound like he’s just descended from the mothership with Andre 3000. Not since Me’shell Ndegeocello has someone in this genre been so devil-may-care about their whims and peculiarities; and, indeed, not since Me’shell have such stylistic gambits been employed so beguilingly. An intoxicating record that repeatedly tries to lasso the moon and sticks the landing every time, Bleuphoria has a solid shot at being the best r&b record of the year.
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