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If Angie Stone had her way, she’d sit down next to every single one of her fans and pour out her heart – and soul – to them.  She’d empower them with hard-earned wisdom; lessons learned from her very own heartache and happiness, mistakes and triumphs that led her to three Grammy Award nominations, two Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards, and four Top 10 R&B albums (with her The Art of Love & War going all the way to number one).  And with her new album, Rich Girl¸ the neo-soul songwriter has done just that, delivering a powerfully intimate collection of songs that wrap themselves around you like a warm embrace full of love and compassion, strength and wit.

“I spent a lot of time over the past few years working with other people, writing with them, working with producers.  And then one day I realized that while I was doing everything I could to help them succeed and watching them grow, I was losing pieces of myself in the process.” she explains “I shaved a lot of my originality off when merging with so many other people. Fans weren’t getting Angie Stone.  They were getting Angie and so-and-so. I knew I had to get back to my own music and skills. It’s time for Angie to do Angie.”  That journey returned Stone to her songwriting roots, determined to record an album where making great music and sharing her soul were the only things that mattered.

And within the first few notes of “Real Music,” a gorgeous interlude of, well, real music that opens the album, you know she succeeded beyond all expectations.  Angie teases with a short preview of what’s to come, drawing her listeners in with that neo-soul like so few can do, inviting you to sit down and get comfortable.  “I wanted people to know that I wrote this album from a real place,” she reflects,” and the words for ‘Real Music’ just came to me. And I wanted to give them more than they were expecting. I want folks to be excited, to say ‘wow, I have an album of so much.’”

From there, the album slides effortlessly into its first single, “Do What U Gotta Do,” serving up more “real music” with its mix of guitars and groove set to a sing-along chorus as its lyrics lay out the theme for the rest of the songs to come.   It’s easy to get swept away in that infectious refrain, to belt it out while driving around town.  But the message is strong and holds its own against the hypnotic melody.  When Y’anna Crawley (a winner of the BET singing competition “Sunday Best”) wrote the lyrics specifically for Angie, she couldn’t have imagined that it would become the muse for Rich Girl.  “I knew right off the bat it was a song for me,” recalls Angie.  “It was speaking to my spirit, it resolved some situations about music I had in my mind.  It was telling me to keep my head up, saying ‘you can make it and do what you gotta do,’ giving me the beginning of the new album and the resolve to make it into something beyond anything I had ever done before.”

“Do What U Gotta Do” in turn inspired Stone to record the album’s title track, “Rich Girl.”  “This song jump started my brain and really started the record, too,” she says.  “It’s not about money, it’s about being rich in everything you do, in your spirit, your purpose and your giving to others.”  One of only four tracks not written by Angie, she inhabits “Rich Girl” as her own, setting the tone for the rest of the album. The song faces down a cheating lover and has Angie dishing out equal doses of unwavering support and advice for her friend done wrong.  Quick to point out that Rich Girl isn’t just for the ladies, Angie offers up “Backup Plan” as a song that could easily be about a man or a woman.  She turns post-breakup despair into a sassy romp, telling friends “I’m no different than you, we’re all human and fall into the same traps. But we all need a backup plan,” she says with a knowing smile.  “Every sister, every brother needs a backup plan.”

Stone’s vocals are both beautiful and wistful in “Proud of Me,” where she reminds us that we’re not alone, that’s she’s been through the gauntlet along with us and has come out the other side in a better place.  “The song can be about more than a relationship,” she explains, “it could be about fear, about change and once you get to a place where you’ve broken those hard habits, it is time to step back and say that you are proud.”  Yet she acknowledges that making change sometimes feels impossible.  In “Guilty,” Angie’s voice soars against a delicate and bare opening stanza, drawing goosebumps as she offers up an emotional, almost reluctant, admission to loving someone when she knows it’s wrong. “I’m trying to let people know as humanly as possible, in lyrics and in my delivery, that we can’t help who we love,” Stone says.  “There are these moments when you can’t let go of what your heart is telling you and love is more powerful than we ever give it credit. I know what being guilty of love feels like.”

Angie makes sure to give the men a voice on Rich Girl, both literally and spiritually.  A surprise interlude by actor/singer Malcolm-Jamal Warner appears midway through the album, adding to the laid back vibe of the record and reminding listeners why it’s so easy to fall for the men they know are so wrong.  Warner’s seductive verses take our breath away and remind us that, oh yes, we know why it’s so hard to leave even when we know we should.  On “Alright,” the spirit of Angie’s father lends a nurturing, gentle feel to the song.  “It’s one of my favorite songs on the album,” she reveals.  “At the end, I channeled my dad, who passed away a couple of years ago, and at the very last adlib my vocals split into two people. I believe that was my dad in my spirit speaking out, answering in the way he would. It was almost as if my dad was tapping me on the shoulder, assuring me that it’s gonna be alright.”

Emotions run high again in “I Can’t Take It.”  Unlike any other song on the album, Stone took a different approach with her vocals and lyrical point of view.  “I reversed the song, something I’ve never done before,” she explains.  “I watched a situation in my life but I sang it from their viewpoint.”  Her voice softens, “When I wrote this, I used to call it my Amy Winehouse song because I loved what she did so much. She died a couple of months after I recorded it and it devastated me.  I want this to pay homage to her.”

“Because I was able to really write for, and in, my own voice this time,” Angie reflects.  “I could really sing these new songs with authenticity, something I haven’t been able to do in a long time.”  “And I wanted to give more of me than people were expecting, to let them know that I love music and when I find something I get excited about, I want more.  And I want people to feel the same when they hear the new album.”

Spoken like a Rich Girl, indeed.

1. Angie Stone

2. Angie Stone

3. Angie Stone

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