Her new album’s title, Unexpected, (her second for legendary soul music label Stax), a suggestion of surprises waiting within the album’s twelve tracks, comes with a double meaning. Without question, it’s a diverse mix of styles and colors, almost always upbeat and forward thinking. The unwavering sense of determination at its core, though, was actually forged by a heartbreaking turn of events.
“I wanted this album to be something different,” says Stone, whose 2007 Stax debut, The Art of Love & War, was her first album to top the Billboard R&B/hip-hop chart. Despite that prior success, she pressed forward in her ongoing search for new avenues to explore and new worlds to conquer. “I didn’t want to make the kind of neo-soul record I had made in the past. That would have been repetitive.”
But mid-way through the recording process, Stone’s father passed away very suddenly. “It was totally unexpected,” she says, “and that’s where I came up with the title of the album. I really didn’t think I could finish the project, because I was so grief stricken.”
Stone, a woman of unshakable faith, persevered. “Someone told me, ‘Either this is going to be your best year or your worst year. You have to channel that grief into which of those two things you want it to be,'” she recalls. “I had to do a lot of the vocals a second time. I had to lean on my dad’s wisdom and energy, and try to be open to what he would have wanted me to do in order to finish the songs. I can say that his spirit was literally there in the studio with me, and I’m grateful for that.”
The spiritual connection was nothing new for Stone, whose earliest exposure to the power of music was via her father’s gospel quartet in her native South Carolina. Along with the sounds of the church, Stone gravitated to the music of Aretha Franklin, Ann Peebles, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and other prominent soul and R&B figures of the 1960s and early ‘70s. While still in high school, she formed The Sequence, a female rap trio that also featured Gwendolyn Chisholm and Cheryl Cook. The group recorded two LPs for the Sugarhill label in the early ‘80s, and charted with hits like “Funk You Up,” “Funky Sound” and “I Don’t Need Your Love.”
Still very young but also very ambitious, Stone was ultimately looking for something more. “Rap was just starting to break into the mainstream at that time, and everyone was grabbing onto it,” she recalls. “But I knew early on that I didn’t want to be a rapper all my life, because I had been a singer up to that point.”
In the early ‘90s, she joined Vertical Hold, a project that veered away from rap and more toward melodic neo-soul. “Vertical Hold trained my ears to harmonize a little bit better,” says Stone. “After I had left the gospel environment of my teenage years, I had lost a little ground in terms of harmony, but Vertical Hold was a band of very talented musicians. All of them had great ears and were able to help me condition my voice.”
After struggling to launch a solo career in the States, Stone headed for Europe, where audiences were more receptive. A meeting with Arista producer Clive Davis eventually resulted in the 1999 release of Black Diamond, her first solo album in the U.S. Two subsequent albums – Mahogany Soul (2001) and Stone Love (2004), both on J-Records – charted well, but her momentum slowed when she developed sarcoidosis, a disease that attacks the upper respiratory system. “There were times when I could barely breathe,” she says. “I was taking steroids just so I could get air into my nose and my lungs. But my career never took a back seat to my health problems. I was going to stay alive because I knew that’s what God had planned for me.”
The hiatus was relatively brief. With her health issues under control, she joined the Stax label and released The Art of Love & War in 2007. Stone wrote nearly all of the music on the album, which showcased the full spectrum of her vocal range.
Two years later, Unexpected represents a giant step forward for Stone, a stretch beyond whatever limits – real or perceived – she might have been facing when the project began. From the get-go, the quick and funky title track warns the listener to “Prepare yourself for just about anything.” Listen closely to this opener for shades of “Family Affair,” the 1971 hit by Sly Stone, the funk icon who wrote the book on surprises.
Equally energetic is “I Ain’t Hearin’ U,” a song that raises a defiant stop sign in the face of rumor and gossip. The track is co-written by vocalist and songwriter Juanita Wynn, Stone’s collaborative partner for several years. “This song is actually about five or six years old,” says Stone. “Juanita and I kept going back and forth about it. I kept asking her what she wanted to do with it, and she kept telling me it was up to me. Finally, I just took it and ran with it. I think it was just a matter of the time being right.”
“I Don’t Care” is a churning and defiant statement of self-acceptance and self-assurance, based on sound advice that Stone received early on and throughout her life: “My dad always used to tell me, ‘Don’t worry about what people say. They can’t change anything. Whatever God wants for you is most important.”
Slow and melodic, “Why Is It” is a ballad to a past lover who is suddenly knocking on the door after circumstances have changed. “Everybody has been in that situation at one time or another,” says Stone. “Your ex sees you getting it together and moving on, and he starts saying all the things you needed to hear before you committed your heart to someone else. It’s nearly impossible to stop whatever you’re doing and pick up where you left off. People really wish that could happen, but it almost never does.”
“Tell Me” is built on a churning techno groove that never lets up. The vocal combination of Stone and Wynn – artfully synthesized and layered by producers Kerrim “Ikon” King and Fitzroy “Art Teacher” Reid – creates a mesmerizing wall of sound that’s punctuated midway by a rap interlude from unsigned Atlanta rapper Dose (Michael Thomas).
Melodic and poignant, “Think Sometimes” is Stone’s ode to her late father, and a reminder to the living to count their blessings. “It’s funny how people can slip away so fast, and suddenly they’re in your past,” she says. “You wonder about what you could have – or should have – done differently. It’ll make you think sometimes.”
But Stone has no regrets about could-haves or should-haves. Her life and her work have taught her some very important truths. Doors close and others open. Lives come to an end, and those who are left behind rededicate themselves and renew their sense of purpose. And somewhere in that process, the most unexpected things can happen.
“This recording marks a change in my life,” she says ofUnexpected. “I emerged at the end of the process with an album that was different from anything I’d done before. It’s something that no one would have anticipated coming from me. My father always encouraged me and everyone else he knew to reach out and make a leap of faith, and that’s exactly what I’ve done.”