He’s a Midwestern-born musical prodigy, a celebrated participant and purveyor of the funk-laden, soul-powered Minneapolis Sound and a Grammy-nominated performer, songwriter, producer and vocalist. Best known as the frontman of St. Paul, Minnesota’s sextet-turned quintet, Mint Condition, his skills on center stage and in the recording studio have secured his prominence in a variety of genres and garnered a resume replete with the biggest and brightest names in music, including Prince, Jill Scott, Jazmine Sullivan, Kelly Price, Robert Glasper and PJ Morton, to name only a few. The man is no other than Stokley Williams, and his ability to translate analog, old-school-anchored showmanship and musicality into a present-day career spanning over a quarter of a century is an enviable accomplishment…for him and for us.
His 2017 debut, Introducing Stokley, was a competently-rendered collection that delineated his style apart from the well-established MC collective (“Level,” “Organic”) and whetted his appetite to expand into multiple influences, unexpected collaborative partners and exploration of his personal beliefs and creative roots. That’s what listeners will discover in Sankofa, his sophomore release and the first project created under his own imprint, BlueRaffe Entertainment (distributed via Flyte Time/Perspective Records, a literal and figurative return to his earliest mentors, the iconic Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis). Richer in scope and robustly rendered, Sankofa intertwines American and African-flavored instrumentation into songs examining life, love and the current condition that requires us to do what the title, a Ghanian Akan tribe term, loosely implies: move forward into the future by reaching back into the past.
Since there’s been an entire global and cultural reset in the years separating Williams’ albums, it’s no wonder that Sankofa feels like a literal and lavish opposite of its predecessor…and that’s a good thing. In fact, his latest project feels as ambitious in scope and range as Stokely’s abilities, which are conveyed in all their glory throughout (Stokley played 99% of the project’s instruments, including percussion, keys and guitars).
In addition to the lyrics and production, Sankofa includes a smorgasbord of players, including Carvin Haggins (Jazmine Sullivan, Jill Scott), Shakespeare! (Justin Bieber), S. Dot (Diddy, Lauryn Hill) and…Snoop Dogg? The pairing actually makes sense, as the D-o-double-g brings his unhurried Cali swag to the flirty skater jam opener, “Vibrant,” and a sly kiss of cool to the 1970s-esque, dipped in doo-wop ballad, “Jeopardy: Verbalize:” “Spell it out for me: you I just can’t read your mind (why you mad, use your words)/you see how bad I’m drowning, so why this game of ‘Jeopardy’ tonight?” Lesser artists would have lost their sense of balance and identity alongside such an intriguing roster, but duets like the already-eponymous hit “Cascade” (featuring The Bonfyre) and breathlessly-infatuated H.E.R. duet, “Rush,” only underscore Stokley’s vocal phrasing prowess and verve. Too often, what ends up becoming a ‘hit’ these days reduces women to erotic obstacle courses and interchangeable body parts, so listening to sultry and stratospheric numbers like the #1 hit “She,” the worshipful “Cafe” featuring Wale and the Shakespeare! contribution, “Clouds,” feel enjoyably refreshing.
If the lengthy track listing and interludes weren’t enough of a clue, Sankofa is an sprawling, multi-faceted journey to behold, preferably at leisure: Mahmoud El-Kati, the world-renowned lecturer, writer and Professor Emeritus of History at Macalester College, who also happens to be Stokley’s own ‘pops,’ bookends the collection with spoken cultural nuggets of wisdom, and the trials presented by soured relationships (“Slip”), anti-Black culture vultures (“Recipe”) and worst-case scenarios gone wrong (“Lost”) are delivered with varying degrees of anger and angst, but never with despair: after all, as he meaningfully intones within the title track, “The strength under my wings, are the spirits that came before me.”
The right music can move your body, challenge your mind and become a salve for broken spirits and hearts: Sankofa’s ability to meet the listener in their current state and guide them into different diasporas and realms further reiterates Williams’ gifts. Whether he’s rolling solo or back within a unit, fans will remain eager to follow wherever his creative journey takes them next. Enthusiastically recommended
By Melody Charles