You already know Stokley. Or at least, you’ve already heard his voice. For three decades, he’s provided the powerhouse vocals for Minnesota standard bearers of R&B Mint Condition. The Twin Cities band took off in the late ’80s during the heyday of the Minneapolis Sound—a genre known for its tightly processed pop sensibility answering traditional funk with synths. Back then, Prince was singing “Kiss” on the radio, and producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were scouring the Cities for talent. The duo discovered Mint Condition at First Ave and signed the group to their record label. Mint Condition surged up the Billboard Hot 100 with “Breakin’ My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes)” in 1991, and hits including “U Send Me Swingin’” and “What Kind of Man Would I Be?” followed.
But members of the group skirted the Minneapolis Sound by pulling unexpected influences—Latin jazz, African drumming. And now, after Mint Condition landed its first Grammy nomination last year, frontman and drummer Stokley (not Stokley Williams—just Stokley) is following up on a long-held ambition to strike out on his own. The record, Introducing Stokley, establishes him as a solo performer, but it nonetheless hangs on to that Mint Condition eclecticism. “I’m a democratic dude,” he says of tapping other artists and producers to collaborate on Introducing. “I’m kind of communal with my energy.”
With help from those other producers and artists, Stokley embraces sounds he only brushed against in Mint Condition. Critics use “genre-blending” pretty liberally—but this album really does line up one sensuous surprise after another.
It doesn’t take long, for example, for the effortless R&B of the front third of the album to incorporate bopping jazz trumpet and scat vocal trimmings, scudding over a bassy trip-hop undercurrent on “Cross the Line.” Halfway through, tides of steel drums snatch you away from hip-hop rhythms, funk-on-the-dance-floor beats, and sly pop choruses as catchy as any Maroon 5 radio jam—washing you instead out to wistful island vibes. We’ve heard steel drums from Mint Condition before. But with Chicago songwriter Sam Dew, Stokley leans all the way in.
Toward the album’s close, Philadelphia R&B producers Carvin Haggins and Ivan Barias throw a Motown engine into the mix with “We/Me.” Per Stokley’s request, they provided the horn sections, burnished here with power-pop chords and grooving back-up vocals. Elsewhere teaming up with rapper Wale, Stokley on “Way Up” serves hip-hop circa right now. And in the vocals department, his front-and-center voice whips up high into Stevie Wonder ecstasy here and there, most notably on “Be With U.”
Now, given the album’s ironic title, Introducing Stokley, you have to acknowledge just how long we’ve been taken in by this man’s pipes. (Stokley negotiated a contract that wouldn’t treat him as a new presence in the industry.) Still, he doesn’t talk about this project the way you might reasonably expect any storied artist to discuss a solo debut. His goal, he says, was to hear something other than himself on the record. He wanted to break away from his sound—so listeners could pick up on something fresh in his voice.
On “Victoria,” he effects what was, for me, his most compelling tone—a sad storyteller’s waver that rasps, muses, and falls. On “Wheels Up,” a dancehall-inflected number produced with Jamaican producer-on-the-rise Omi, Stokley sports a certain speed-it-up-then-slow-it-down phrasing that sounds unmistakably contemporary (dancehall itself skewing trendy if Rihanna, Justin Bieber, and Drake are any indication).
Distancing yourself, as Stokley wants to do, from the sound that’s most comfortably your own and welcoming in—even prioritizing—outside talent doesn’t exactly jibe with our notion of breaking solo. But Stokley would remind you that, given technology today, there are “a million people doing music—or who at least have the option to. They can push a button and actually do music, whether they can play it or not.” He can sit in the studio and compose songs by himself anytime. He does. But not everyone can kick it with fellow musicians. Plus, at the end of the day, it’s still his voice.
He describes talking through ideas with producers Haggins and Barias. “It’s kind of like writing a movie,” he says. “Here’s the title, here’s the general idea.” Different turns of phrase bring up different conversations. Something they see on television or read in an article pushes them one way. Then their influences on one another lead them elsewhere. “A lot of these people I’m working with, they bring out—they exacerbate—different sides of my personality,” Stokley says. “It’s just like any person you know—people bring out different parts of you.”
These people, and their effect on Stokley, get lyrical treatment on the Motown-driven “We/Me.” His verses build up the power of suggestion we hold over one another every day—capping in a shimmering chorus that exhorts listeners to make the changes in themselves that they want to see in others. We can hardly expect, he says, musicians to deliver jams that don’t touch on the people they bring into the studio with them—whether friends, family members, or other artists.
“And let nobody fool you,” he says, “you can be Michael Jackson, Prince, any of these people—and yes, their name is on the marquee, but there are lots of people that help all that come to fruition.”
Stokley’s a product of an era when bands were the thing, and his history in African drumming taught him how to put ego aside, how to listen, and how to perform as an ensemble. It’s no surprise, then, that his solo debut seeks the kind of personal innovation you can only achieve through others.
Introducing Stokley is available here on Apple Music.