When a Rahsaan Patterson album drops, you can bet your last dollar that it's going to be among the best R&B releases out that year, an inspired set of tunes ablaze with attitude and feeling.
But here's the sad thing: You probably won't hear it. Patterson doesn't fit the mold for today's popular black male singers: No hyper-masculine posturing, no hip-hop flourishes anywhere in the music. And he doesn't overplay sex in his image or lyrics. The New York-born singer is seemingly too thoughtful a songwriter, too eccentric a vocalist to garner real attention from the mainstream.
But since the release of his self-titled debut in 1997, Patterson has amassed a sizable underground following around the world. He usually packs small- to medium-sized venues. And every two or three years or so when the artist puts a record out, discerning music lovers -- those hungry for melodic, substantive sounds -- are usually satisfied.
After Hours is the new joint by Patterson, the follow-up to 1999's masterful Love in Stereo. The CD hit stores Tuesday.
"I didn't want the album to have a continuity of the previous two," the artist says, phoning from his Los Angeles home. "I wanted it to be more gritty and not as lush as the previous two. I wanted to record songs that were more up-tempo and reflective of the guy that likes to go out and have a good time and be with my people."
After Hours is Patterson's first independent release through Artistry Music, a label he partly owns. His last two albums came out on the now-defunct MCA. Though critically acclaimed, Rahsaan Patterson and Love in Stereo never generated hits and barely registered on the charts. They were indeed lush records, warmed by strings and layered live instrumentation.
Although such songs as "Spend the Night" and "Where You Are" from his debut or "Treat You Like a Queen" and "Sure Boy" from Love in Stereo weren't exactly retro, the production still emanated a flavor from a long-ago golden era -- the moody, funk-fueled soul of the mid '70s. Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, Rufus and Chaka Khan influences abounded. With a real drummer keeping time, real guitars accenting the groove and real strings swirling behind it all, Patterson's music was just -- well, too real for modern urban radio. So he scored no hit singles. And with no distinctive image to market, few outside the international underground soul scene got a chance to experience Patterson's music and that voice: the dynamic range and the elastic, Khan-inspired phrasing.
Before MCA shut its doors a few years ago, some of the artists on the label -- including the Roots and Mary J. Blige -- were transferred to Geffen Records. Patterson wasn't one of them.
"I always did what I wanted to do, which made others working with me a little crazy," says Patterson, who's 30. "My music always came from an independent spirit, anyway. It placed me in an independent perspective to do the type of music I do. I have less headaches now, being independent. A lot of artists didn't go over to Geffen. It was a blessing for me."
The split was amiable, and the singer-songwriter got to leave with his master recordings, including tracks for After Hours. Although the record had been recorded while Patterson was on a major label, the CD has the spare, right-on production of a tightly budgeted independent record. And the result is the singer's most consistent set to date. The beats are more upfront, the grooves heavier. And the strings and woodwinds are more subtle this time. (You almost miss them on "Yeah Yeah Yeah," a mid-tempo, head-nodding number, and "The Best," a pretty ballad with an autumnal feel.)
"I grew up with a lot of fun disco music and R&B," says Patterson, who started his singing career as a child on the '80s musical TV show Kids Incorporated. "My parents played all that music, the Stevies, the Chakas, and I just absorbed all that, and it comes out in the music. It's paying homage, in a way, to all the great music I remember."
Before making his own albums, Patterson was a hit songwriter for others, penning Brandy's 1995 platinum smash, "Baby," and Tevin Campbell's 1996 hit, "Back to the World." He did regular session work as a background singer before signing with MCA in '96.
"I've never been into putting myself in a box and making records that everybody expects to hear from me," says Patterson, who sounds shy and a little self-serious on the phone. "I don't feel the same emotions that I felt at 19. I go with my instincts now."