It depends on the day, her mood, the tempo of a tune, but Angie Stone can flip her sound several ways.
"On any given day, I sound a little like Roberta Flack, Betty Wright or Chaka Khan," says the artist, who's calling from her Los Angeles home. "It's a soul thing, you know." The influences ring clear as you listen to her albums. But the singer, who plays Murphy Fine Arts Center Saturday night, imbues her music with a flavor that's truly her own: hip, smoky and sensual. Lyrically, she can be streetwise or maternal. But she's romantic most of the time: pining for everlasting love or extolling the man who's taking care of business at the moment.
One thing's for sure: Stone keeps it real with songs that smoothly showcase her complexities, giving us glimpses of her private world. The singer-songwriter's new album, and third overall, is Stone Love.
"It's just an expression of growth for me," says Stone, her speaking voice a little raspy. "It's a brighter album in terms of perception. I fell in love, so you'll find a lot of love songs this time."
The first full track on Stone Love, and the first single, is "I Wanna Thank Ya," a summery groover featuring Snoop Dogg. Although the past-his-prime rapper adds nothing special to the track, the upbeat number reflects Stone's personal life these days. She's happier and more focused.
"Every album is a time in my life where I am emotionally, mentally and spiritually," says the Columbia, S.C., native. "But things could change. I could go back to the heartbreak. You never know."
Although she's tight-lipped about her personal life (her age, for instance, or anything about her new man), Stone's failed romance with younger neo-soul star D'Angelo is no secret. The two have a 7-year-old son, Michael, who's "getting more handsome every day," the artist says. (Stone won't discuss her relationship with her son's Grammy-winning father. But Brown Sugar, D'Angleo's platinum 1995 debut, is "still in the changer," she says.)
Diamond, Stone's 20-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, is studying mass communications at South Carolina State. ("I keep telling her to do accounting," Stone says. "That's where the money is.") She sings with her mother on "You're Gonna Get It," a lush, midtempo song and one of the highlights on Stone Love.
Unlike the singer's other two albums, the solid Black Diamond (1999) and the almost-masterful Mahogany Soul (2001), the new disc avoids a style rut, offering terse, hip-hop touches here and there. But '70s soul remains Stone's chief musical inspiration. The whole "neo-soul" label annoys her.
"I think they done made up something new to sell something that's not new," Stone says. "There's no such thing as new soul or neo-soul. Soul has always been here."
Stone started her career about 25 years ago as part of the female rap trio Sequence. The group's big hit, "Funk You Up," came out on the fabled Sugarhill label in 1980 and was one of the first hip-hop records to blend soulful harmonies with rap. (It was recently redone by Erykah Badu featuring Stone, Queen Latifah and Bahamadia on last year's Worldwide Underground.) When Sequence dissolved in the mid-'80s after two albums, Stone found work as a session vocalist -- eventually landing a gig with the R&B group Vertical Hold, which scored a 1993 hit, "Seems You're Much Too Busy."
Stone, who as a girl sang in the choir at First Nazareth Baptist Church in Columbia, found immediate success with her gold-selling '99 debut, Black Diamond, featuring her most transcendent hit to date, "No More Rain (In This Cloud)." The song cleverly sampled Gladys Knight and the Pips' 1973 classic, "Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)." In fact, smart sampling has become one of Stone's trademarks. "Wish I Didn't Miss You," from Mahogany Soul, lifted the dramatic intro from the O'Jays 1972 hit "Backstabbers." And "Lovers' Ghetto," a gem on Stone Love, rides the groove from Dynasty's 1980 underground classic, "Adventures in the Land of Music," and references Michael Jackson's 1982 slow jam "Lady in My Life."
"It's like an extension, a way of acknowledging that good music from back in the day," Stone says of her penchant for sampling. "But it's a new song altogether, you know."
For her current national tour, she reached out to fellow soul sensation Anthony Hamilton, whose gritty, gospel-inflected style complements Stone's. He's the co-headliner.
"I think it's a good fit," the singer says. "It makes sense. It's like a moving train. And you can't stop a moving train, honey."
Angie Stone plays Murphy Fine Arts Center, 2100 Argonne Drive at Morgan State University, Saturday night at 7 and Constitution Hall, 18th and C streets N.W. in Washington, Sept. 25 at 8 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. Tickets for the Baltimore show are $50 and tickets for the D.C. shows are $55; they can be purchased through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or by visiting www.ticketmaster.com.
Hear Rashod Ollison on the radio, Tuesdays at 1 p.m. on Live 105.7 and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on WTMD-FM 89.7.