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The passage above plays in a loop in my head as I wait for Rahsaan Patterson (Rah to his friends) to arrive at Casbah, the Moroccan-themed café where we’re meeting to talk about bleuphoria, his latest CD. That potent snatch of lyrics sums up both the high-wire aesthetics of the new disc and Rahsaan’s approach to his entire career (itself a gift within the gift of life): taking high chances in this divine dance. bleuphoria, whose sonic tapestry ranges from the retro club funk of “Ghost” (featuring the divine Jody Watley) to the avant-Broadway spiritual “Mountain Top” (featuring the great Táta Vega), has been my soundtrack for weeks, pushing me out of the realm of on-the-grind journalist into that of unadulterated fan. It’s one of those gifts that true artists routinely bestow on the faithful, justifying our love, reminding us anew why we’ve taken them into our hearts and ceded real estate in our spirits to them. With bleuphoria, coming almost four years after 2007’s cult favorite Wines & Spirits and three years after his acclaimed 2008 Christmas album The Ultimate Gift (played year-round by the devoted), fans are getting synthesis and evolution of all that’s come before—leftfield experimentation, centerfield grooves and soulful meditations on inner and outer space.
Longtime fans have watched Rah grow from the skinny, wide-eyed boy with the big eyes and bigger voice on the classic children’s show “Kids Incorporated” to one of the most influential yet underrated soul men on the planet. (His career is riddled with paradox and irony.) We’ve watched him sport blonde-streaked hair and cutting edge fashions while strolling through European-set music videos, and then hung on to his every note in clubs and concert halls around the globe as he, shorn of hair and clad in the simplest of gear, bled out in song—joy, pain, longing, despair, ecstasy. We’ve kept track of the Who’s Who of talented folks he’s written and produced for and with (from pop diva Brandy to fellow under-sung MVP Van Hunt), with whom he’s collaborated (Ledisi, Lalah Hathaway) and of the icons who have sung his praises (the awesome Chaka Khan) and ushered him into the hall of the greats.
All of that comes to glorious fruition on bleuphoria, an ‘80s-tinged collection comprised of his trademark gorgeous ballads (“Goodbye,” “Miss You”), head-noddingly hypnotic mid-tempo tracks (“Stay With Me,” first single “Easier Said Than Done” and second single “6 AM”), funk-drenched club grooves (“Ghost”), and genre-defying studio experiments that pay off in a couple of career high-points (“Crazy [Baby],” “Mountain Top”). While being rooted in the classic principles of melody and poetic lyrics, and while gently laying bare the influences of everything from ‘80s electro to vintage Prince and Michael Jackson, bleuphoria pushes Rahsaan to dig deeper as singer, songwriter and producer. It’s the sound of personal fears being conquered and artistic growth unfolding—beautifully.
After he arrives and while he’s sipping mint tea, I ask him to describe the sound of and inspirations for the new work. I initially hesitate because I’m reluctant to bring up one of the strongest influences I’d detected—Prince. The Purple One’s name has become shorthand and lazy reference point for music writers. It’s an almost meaningless citation these days. But something of bleuphoria’s tremulous sensuality, vulnerability and spirituality, its earthy religiosity and unbridled playfulness, is an unforced and welcome throwback to the days when Prince towered over the world. Rahsaan pauses before replying.
“As an artist,” he says thoughtfully, “you know that influence and inspiration come from any and everything. And just how much something influences and inspires you can’t really be put into words and it can happen so quickly. You don’t even have to study it. You can see it, read it one time, hear it one time and it’s a part of your fiber. Prince has been that for me. Michael Jackson, the same thing. Of course, when you talk about artists of that caliber, you listen and you learn. Michael Jackson, the way he danced, I would pick up that phrasing but it would come out vocally ‘cause I’m not a spinner—I’m not gon’ be doin’ all that. [He laughs.] But I got it and could interpret it vocally. Prince—I don’t play all those instruments at all. I can’t do what they do. I do what I do, influenced by them and what they taught me. And because it’s pure and it’s from Spirit, the message is always the same—which is Love. I don’t get bothered by those comparisons at all because they taught me what I do.”
Two others who have taught him well over the years are his frequent studio cohorts Keith Crouch and Jamey Jaz, producers extraordinaire. Though he started the songwriting and pre-production work on bleuphoria at home by himself using GarageBand, when he was ready to take the tracks to the next level he called his longtime friends and collaborators.
“I wrote ‘Ghost,’ ‘Easier Said Than Done,’ ‘Goodbye,’ ‘Miss You,’ ‘bleuphoria,’ ‘Mountaintop,’ ‘Makin’ Love’ and ‘Insomnia’ by myself,” he recalls. “I went into the studio and started those by myself, then worked with Keith and Jamey because they’re phenomenal. We have history. They have been exposed to my growth and they have assisted me in my growth. I was scared but I knew I had to do this because it’s what was next for me. I started the basic tracks and by the time I got to them and they heard what I did, they were surprised, happy, proud—and they just went on the ride with me.”
In addition to shape-shifting diva Jody Watley and the legendary Táta Vega, others who came along for the head-spinning ride include Andrae Crouch and his choir; R&B chanteuses Shanice Wilson, Lalah Hathaway and Faith Evans; and actor Darryl Stephens (Noah’s Arc), who contributed lyrics to “Crazy [Baby].” It’s testimony to the high regard in which his fellow artists hold him that most of those appearances and contributions were arranged with one phone call or tweet from Rahsaan.
“I was in the studio one night with Jamey,” laughs Rahsaan, “and we were embellishing ‘Ghost.’ I was on Twitter and Jody was on Twitter and I said, ‘I’m in the studio,’ and she said ‘Oh, yeah?’ I said, ‘You wanna come?’ She said, ‘Yeah,’ and she was there in, like, an hour and did her part.”
And there were no lawyers or managers or label folks to tell either one of you that you couldn’t do it?
“No,” says Rahsaan, “there was nobody to say, ‘I don’t think it’s a good thing and you’re not gonna do it.’ We skipped all that. It was a beautiful thing.”
For her part, Ms. Watley (in a separate interview) adds, “I always enjoy working with people who I’m actually a fan of and working with Rahsaan is no exception. He continues to evolve and move beyond the expected soul boundaries, which I totally respect. It’s cool to be a part of his journey. I can’t wait to hear our song in the clubs. Rahsaan has added new elements to his musical arsenal with bleuphoria.”
So what’s the breakdown of that arsenal? Who in that all-star collective contributed what to the final release? “I produced ‘6 AM’ and ‘Miss You.’ Jamey Jaz and I produced ‘Ghost,’ ‘Goodbye’ and ‘Insomnia’ together. Keith Crouch and I produced ’I Only Have Eyes For You,’ ‘Crazy [Baby],’ ‘Easier Said Than Done,’ ‘Stay With Me,’ ‘bleuphoria,’ ‘Makin’ Love’ and ‘Mountain Top.’ Lalah Hathaway not only contributed vocals to ‘6 AM’, she also plays additional keyboards and key bass on the track—as well as key bass on the vamp of the song ‘God.’ Shanice sings vocal adlibs on ‘Crazy [Baby],’ which features Faith Evans singing the hook backgrounds. Jody Watley is featured on ‘Ghost.’ ‘Mountain Top’ features an Andrae Crouch-directed and arranged choir with special guest vocalist Táta Vega.” The mention of Andrae Crouch’s name leads us back to a discussion of the spiritual aspect of creativity, songwriting in particular.
“Please understand,” says Rah emphatically, “that the initial impact of a lyric that comes to you is always for you, the writer. It’s always [a] message for you first. And it remains that. It’s just that once you receive the initial point of it for you, it then goes out to wherever it needs to go. But the initial impact is always a message from the ether for you, to you. I believe that totally.”
I’m just about to ask Rahsaan how his relationship to his gift has changed from when he was a child to now. What’s different—if anything—about the ways in which he sees, wields and values his gift? But from out of nowhere we hear…
“Hello. You have a good soul.”
Neither of us had seen the dude come in to the coffeehouse, let alone approach our table. We’d been too deeply immersed in the conversational stream. So when the scruffily bearded, unkempt, elderly homeless guy sharply jutted in from the side, leaning over our table to look Rahsaan square in the eyes, we were both startled.
“You have a good soul,” repeated the man, touching Rah on the shoulder for emphasis before ambling off to ask other customers for change.
“Thank you,” Rahsaan called after him, smiling. We were silent for a moment. If it were a scene in a film, it would be corny and heavy-handed, forcing emphasis on the themes and topics we’ve mulled over during our nearly two-hour dialogue: the intertwined paths of spiritual growth and career trajectory; that indescribable, better-than-any-drug high of channeling creative energy and erasing the barriers between you and whatever deity you worship; pushing past one’s own deeply ingrained issues to forge healthy relationships; coming to terms with a loved one’s death through one’s own creative expression…and, of course, music, music and more music. After a moment, we pick up the conversational thread from where we were interrupted.
“The difference now,” he replies thoughtfully, “is that I’m aware that I have a gift, [and] that is serving others beyond applause. As a child, I knew I had talent and I could see how it affected people. I knew that it brought me joy. As I’ve gotten older, I realize that it sustains my life and I’m okay with the power of that. There was a long period where, even as a child, I would keep myself from believing that it’s as magnificent as it is. [He chuckles.] For fear of the responsibility that comes with it. And for a long time I was telling myself that there was no responsibility, and that I owe it—my gift—to myself and that’s it. But I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m okay with all that comes with it. I never wanted to be responsible for anybody else,” he laughs softly.
“See,” he continues, “I believe we all possess the ability that one sees in an artist. I believe we all possess that. Some of us just don’t know how to get there. I had a lot of frustration with people being lazy and not wanting to go there and find that in themselves instead of looking to others for that. That bothered me until I realized that everybody is just not equipped sometimes to go there. It’s easier for some people to not have to go there because there’s a lot there that will expose a lot of truths about life and God and politics and a lot of things that we’ve been brainwashed about.”
And that’s what artists are for, I suggest, going there and lighting the path for the rest of us. “Exactly,” he nods. Just before we leave, I ask if he can explain how bleuphoria fits within the context of his body of work.
“Well,” he smiles, “with every album that I make, the last song is the prelude to what’s coming next. Wines & Spirits ended with “Stars.” And sonically and aesthetically, “I Only Have Eyes For You,” opens bleuphoria because this album to me is much more galactic in sound and for me the process [of making it] was quite transcendent. So I ended the last album with “Stars” and this one begins up there. It lives there. And the Christmas album, which fell between Wines & Spirits and bleuphoria, went to that place as well, so I’m still residing there. And I’m hoping to stay there.”
...you know that influence and inspiration come from any and everything.