In an act of hypocrisy worthy of Fox News, NARAS recently flung Grammy noms at Ray Charles’s tombstone even as it failed to recognize the thirtysomething r&b virtuosos—from Trina Broussard to Lalah Hathaway—who toil off the clock as custodians of Brother Ray’s vocal legacy. While Usher rents a U-Haul to lug home his trophies, the critical establishment Rip Van Winkles on the best r&b album of the year, Rahsaan Patterson’s third solo (and first indie) record, After Hours. A Kids Incorporated alum turned gifted, underutilized songwriter (Brandy, Tevin Campbell), NYC-born Patterson combines sugarcoated melodies, hand-knit harmonies, and cruising grooves with lush strings and unpretentious orchestration. Watch him weave exuberantly between moods, sounds, and textures: there’s the bubbly ’80s synth-funk of “So Hot” (conjuring up Midnight Star and Slave), plus the melancholy piano-pop of “The Best” and the hushed, sinewy grind of “Burnin’,” two of three superb tracks produced by longtime collaborator Van Hunt.
Today’s most technically advanced secular male vocalist, Patterson does more with Hunt’s material than Hunt. Patterson attacks, zigzags, and swoops around notes in a jazzy, feline tenor, like some supernatural love child of Chaka Khan and Al Jarreau. His pungent nasality may be an acquired taste (and he can be frustratingly self-absorbed live), but his singing is no less emotionally profound for its queer stylization. The album’s best track, the wistful childhood remembrance “Don’t Run So Fast,” is chilling in its sincerity: “I remember Grandma’s blue robe/And some of the stories she told. . . . There was a lullaby I treasured the most, it said/ Don’t run so fast/You might fall on glass/Don’t run so fast/You won’t be the last.” Usher’s sales aside, these are what mature confessions really sound like.
The current school of emotional r&b—Anthony Hamilton, Raphael Saadiq, R. Kelly—remains cosmologically rooted in hip-hop and its terrorizing street-cred commandments. With his lanky frame, tortoise-shell spectacles, and Jamal Regular image, Patterson sidesteps thug and pimp masculinities, and yet, as is evident on a Dirty South-inspired thumper like “I Always Find Myself,” his musical vision has enough breadth to incorporate hip-hop’s sonic priorities. Patterson wants to be soulful, but he avoids the monomaniacal, canonizing nostalgia for analog-era Stevie and Marvin promulgated by such retro fetishists as Donnie and Glenn Lewis. Rahsaan Patterson offers the industry only joy, optimism, romance, sophistication, and chops. Given the macho posturing and sorry musicianship of contemporary urban music, that’s not just refreshing or inspiring—it’s downright futuristic.