For three decades, vocalist Angie Stone has been surprising audiences, critics, peers and the music industry itself. Born and raised in the Southern gospel tradition - while at the same time absorbing the gritty and impassioned anthems generated by soul icons of the 1960s - Stone has since mapped a life-long journey that encompasses rap, neo-soul, hip-hop, R&B, jazz and more. Along the way, attempts to pin her down according to this category or that movement have been challenging if not impossible. With each new recording, with each next step in her career, she has consistently hit the world with something it didn't see coming.
The South Carolina native began singing at First Nazareth Baptist Church as a child, and attended local gospel performances by her father's quartet and by the Singing Angels and the Gospel Keynotes. She had a well grounded if uneventful childhood, enjoyed sports and was offered several basketball scholarships upon graduation. Her love of poetry was the only indication of the songwriter she would someday become.
Angie saved every penny she could from a variety of go-nowhere jobs to record some demos, and at age sixteen formed the rap trio, The Sequence, with Gwendolyn Chisholm and Cheryl Cook...step one on Angie's climb to the top. Their hits for Sugarhill Records, "Funk You Up," "Funky Sound," and "I Don't Need Your Love," showcased Angie's vocal chops to the world beyond her Carolina home, and by the mid '80s she had worked with Mantronix and Lenny Kravitz and formed the neo-soul trio Vertical Hold, who signed with A&M Records. Vertical Hold was project that veered away from rap and moved more toward melodic neo-soul. ''Vertical Hold trained my ears to harmonize a little bit better,'' says Stone. ''After I had left the gospel environment of my teenage years, I had lost a little ground in terms of harmony, but Vertical Hold was a band of very talented musicians. All of them had great ears and were able to help me condition my voice.''
After struggling to launch a solo career in the States, Stone headed for Europe, where audiences were more receptive. A meeting with Arista producer Clive Davis eventually resulted in the 1999 release of Black Diamond, her first solo album in the U.S. The word on Angie's Arista launch was that she was a modern day-Aretha Franklin providing an exuberant return to classic soul in the tradition of her heroes, Franklin, Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield. She brought a whole new energy and sensibility to the material and a whole new spectrum of fans joined the Angie fan club when they heard her Top 10 R&B hit "No More Rain (In This Cloud). Two subsequent albums - Mahogany Soul (2001) and Stone Love (2004), both on J-Records - charted well, but her momentum slowed when she developed sarcoidosis, a disease that attacks the upper respiratory system. ''There were times when I could barely breathe,'' she says. ''I was taking steroids just so I could get air into my nose and my lungs. But my career never took a back seat to my health problems. I was going to stay alive because I knew that's what God had planned for me.''
The hiatus was relatively brief. With her health issues under control, she joined the Stax label and released The Art of Love & War in 2007. Stone wrote nearly all of the music on the album, which showcased the full spectrum of her vocal range. Stax Records became a whole new creative family for Angie to call her own. The reactivated Stax imprint, acquired by the Concord Music Group, is committed to the power and legacy of its forbearers, and poised to be a dynamic new force in contemporary R&B music. Stax holds a critical place in American music history as one of the most popular soul music record labels of all time, second only to Motown in sales and influence, but first in gritty, raw, Southern-steeped soul music.
Two years after the release of The Art of Love & War, Stone's Stax debut album, comes Unexpected, her second collaboration with the label. ''I wanted this album to be something different,'' says Stone, who pressed forward in her ongoing search for new avenues to explore and new worlds to conquer. ''I didn't want to make the kind of neo-soul record I had made in the past. That would have been repetitive.'' But mid-way through the recording process, Stone's father passed away very suddenly. ''It was totally unexpected...and that's where I came up with the title of the album. I really didn't think I could finish the project, because I was so grief stricken,'' she said.
Her new album's title, Unexpected, a suggestion of surprises waiting within the album's twelve tracks, comes with a double meaning. Without question, it's a diverse mix of styles and colors, almost always upbeat and forward thinking. Unexpected represents a giant step forward for Stone, a stretch beyond whatever limits - real or perceived - she might have been facing when the project began.