These six guys from Oakland, Calif. — who call themselves Tony! Toni! Toné! — named their first album Who? They have style, that’s for sure. (They’re a tony band, get it?) Who? hit big, sending three songs to No. 1 on the black music chart. It briefly featured someone who sounded like the grandmother of one of the guys, recorded in a conversation that ends when she asks whether she’s going to be paid.
Now a tradition may have been forged: The second Tony album brings the grandmother back. She asks whether this record is going to be like the last. ”No, ma’am,” members of the band reply.
They’re right. Most of Who? was amiable new jack swing, streetwise R&B created by a younger generation who’d grown up listening to rap. This new album — at its best, anyway — takes that style into the era of such rap bands as the Jungle Brothers and De La Soul, bands that smooth out the rougher edges of the street and send their ideas darting like butterflies in flight.
What sets the Tonys apart is sometimes simply the sounds they hit upon. One cut (”All the Way”) features a scrambling beat nudged by what might be a plastic toy slide whistle. Sometimes the group — just like the most up-to-date rap bands — mixes conversation into its songs. ”What are we, what are we, what are we?” voices rhythmically ask in the slide-whistle song. ”Just a bunch of brothers having a party” comes the modest answer — modest because not every bunch of brothers would know how to build momentum by adding new elements as the songs proceed. Toward the end of ”Feels Good,” for instance, you hear a jazz pianist doing an inventive keyboard dance behind an exuberant voice that specifies just where it feels good (in the hands, feet, bones, heart, and soul).
After five songs, things calm down and the Tonys settle into a series of prospective radio hits, all of them more conventional than the slyer songs that kicked off the album. But even these radio confections are deft and sweet, and the album closes with a surprise called ”Those Were the Days,” in which, over the jouncing sound of banjo and trumpet, the band looks wistfully back at the days when a dollar was worth a dollar, and you didn’t have to carry a gun when you left your house.
Wait a minute: Is that what things have come to in Oakland today? While you ponder this dire possibility, just remember that — even though Bobby Brown and other, more famous names might be the established commercial heroes of current R&B — it’s artists such as Tony! Toni! Toné! who are setting the course for whatever future the genre is likely to have.