In every genre of music, there are three big tiers of artists. The top tiers of artists are those that are commercially/relatively commercially successful and often beloved or at least respected by critics. The bottom tiers are those who have been unable to make it and generally are loathed by critics. Then there’s that middle tier – the underrated who haven’t been able to achieve gargantuan success, but definitely have achieved critical success and acclaim. For one of R&B’s most soulful presences Angie Stone, underrated characterizes her perfectly. As hard as it may be to believe, Stone has never set foot in the top 10 of the Billboard 200 Albums Chart – GASP*!
Stone has had some success, so writing her off as all ‘critical’ with no ‘commercial’ would be an overstatement. That said, Stone’s success, given a high level of musical sales at the time she achieved such, are modest. Stone has earned two gold selling albums, first with 1999 contemporary soul classic Black Diamond and with its 2001 follow up Mahogany Soul. That wouldn’t be the last album released by Stone, who recently dropped her seventh studio album Dream. So why hasn’t Angie Stone ‘caught on’ commercially? Why were mere gold albums in a time where platinum and multiplatinum efforts flourished her ceiling?
One reason is because when Black Diamond dropped in 1999, Stone was already a mature artist. By mature, that means that Stone was closer to 40 than to 20 or 30 – aka “old” by pop music standards. For those unaware, Stone was a 60s baby (born in 1961), meaning much of her musical influence would come from the 70s when she was a teen and would truly have the independence to make her own musical choices. The 90s initially weren’t regarded for its soulfulness in the old school context because the beginning was marking the new hip-hop infused New Jack Swing movement. When Stone bowed as a solo artist, neo-soul – of which she’s a proponent – was earning its wings.
Here’s the kicker. While Stone was a huge force in the movement – you can’t hear about neo-soul without some reference to Stone – others took off with it and had more success. The then 38-year old Stone was unable to achieve the platinum success of younger neo-soul artists, male or female. Alicia Keys for example, who arrived after Stone as a 20-year old classically trained musician, would go on to become the sub-genre’s most successful artist. Even successful examples (though less successful than Keys) such as India.Arie and Jill Scott, would surpass Stone in sales. It’s not fair considering Stone’s distinct, rich alto, but the business and life of course aren’t always fair.
Why Black Diamond and Mahogany Soul were successful is because of the ripeness of the movement and the untouchable classic status of the material on both albums. The first song that comes to mind when Angie Stone’s name is mentioned is “No More Rain (In This Cloud),” which brilliantly sampled Gladys Knight’s classic “Neither One Of Us.” I’ll never forget remembering playing “No More Rain (In This Cloud)” for my mom, who instantly asked, “is that Gladys Knight?” because of the prominence of the sample.
“No More Rain (In This Cloud)” – a #56 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 – would be the definitive hit of both Stone’s career and Black Diamond itself, but with more weight placed on albums back then, there were plenty of songs that cemented Black Diamond as the gold-certified contemporary soul classic it is, including a mean cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man,” “Man Loves His Money” and “Love Story.” Looking back though, isn’t it amazing than album that only peaked at #46 on the Billboard 200 in the same year when Backstreet Boys’ Millennium arrived earlier ended up going gold?
In the singles department, while Black Diamond is considered to be the ‘classic,’ Mahogany Soul benefitted more in regards to singles and prominent songs. Some critics like All Music Guide’s Jose. F Promis, consider Mahogany Soul to be the ‘gold standard.’ “Brotha” is the closest rival to take top honors from “No More Rain (In This Cloud)” as Stone’s definitive classic. The single actually performed better, peaking at #52 on the pop charts.
Additionally Mahogany Soul was lifted by the likes of “Wish I Didn’t Miss You” (#79) and “More Than A Woman.” The album itself still missed the top 20, but debuted more respectably at #22. Again, Stone was golden. Gold for then 40-year old Stone was respectable, but wouldn’t it have been great had Mahogany Soul received its just due and been minimally certified platinum?
Third album Stone Love was another fine effort from Stone, marked with the upmost consistency and a Grammy-nominated hit (“U-Haul”). Despite debuting at #14 – better than her two previous albums – Stone Love would become the first solo album by Stone to miss RIAA certification. This is unfortunate as Stone Love actually is as stacked as any Angie Stone effort, with guest including Snoop Dogg (“I Wanna Thank Ya”), Anthony Hamilton (“Stay For A While”), and then notable Floetry (“My Man”). Stone Love received a score of 68.
The trend of non-certification and under appreciation would ensue with 2007 effort The Art of Love & War, which was issued on the revival of Stax and would give Stone her highest peak on the Billboard 200 to date, #11. Like Stone Love, Stone earned another Grammy nomination, this time for Betty Wright duet “Baby.” Still, after all was said and done, underrated described Stone’s condition, though clearly unfair. The Art of Love & War
Stone’s first quartet of album’s marks her most far reaching impact, with the weight placed on the first two. After The Art of Love & War, things haven’t been nearly as hot for Stone, despite little if any loss in the musicianship department. Unexpected (2009) shows Stone’s attempt at youthfulness, picturing her on the cover in a fierce dress riding a motorcycle. While the ill-used autotune of “Tell Me” marks a departure for Stone, most of the album itself is standard fare.
“I Ain’t Hearin’ U” for example didn’t break new ground; it just reminded us how consistent Stone is. “I Found A Keeper,” sampling Bobby Womack’s beloved classic “That’s The Way I Feel About You,” similarly is a reminder of Stone’s throwback soul leanings. Unexpected, by no means inferior, only mustered up a tepid #133 debut on the Billboard 200. Basically, 133rd greatly lowers the ceiling for any album or artist. Unexpected did receive a respectable score of 67 via Metacritic.
Rich Girl, Stone’s 2012 album still couldn’t get back into the top half of the Billboard 200, settling for #109. In regards to the cover art, Stone didn’t force things this round, which was a better look. Like any other album, she also didn’t switch things up, except avoidance of autotune (still trying to forgive Angie for that one!). There were no monumental moments that hadn’t been better executed previously, but songs like “Do What U Gotta Do,” “Backup Plan,” slow jam “Guilty,” and title track “Rich Girl” were all welcome additions to a rich catalogue.
Where does Stone’s seventh album Dream fall in the ranks? It’s another well-rounded effort as to be expected that likely can’t change the narrative of Stone’s career, but shows her perseverance in spite of this. For true fans who admire Stone’s tremendous musicianship like myself, when I received my copy of Dream I was ecstatic – “After three years a new Angie Stone album!”
Unfortunately, in a time where R&B as a whole has cooled almost to glacial proportions, others don’t express that same elation. Even so, Stone has accepted her lot in the music biz and hasn’t allowed it to inhibit her from doing what she loves. 2015’s Dream is a perfect example of that. She’s never received her just due – her albums and songs rise above their modest performance – but Stone is undoubtedly one of the most soulful artists ever. As Randy Jackson once said on American Idol – maybe more than once actually, “when you got it, you just got it,” and Stone has it regardless of the RIAA or Billboard charts.
Check out the Brent Music Reviews Angie Stone playlist via Spotify embedded below!