NEW YORK — After two decades of struggling in the music business, Angie Stone is finally, in her own words, "in the right place at the right time."
The singer-songwriter, until recently best known for performing with and/or writing tunes for such pop and R&B stars as Mary J. Blige, Lenny Kravitz and Stone's ex-boyfriend D'Angelo, released her first solo album, "Black Diamond," to rave reviews in September. It has since established Stone as the hottest new exponent of nouveau soul, a movement that marries the gospel and blues influences of old-school R&B to the contemporary grooves and street-savvy style of hip-hop.
" 'Black Diamond' shines with the intensity of brilliant soul," raved Rolling Stone. Vibe magazine noted of the album, which has been in the Top 20 of Billboard's R&B chart for the past four weeks, "It takes you back in the day but remains totally of the moment."
Indeed, Stone's husky, sultry alto and her mix of spiritual reverence and feisty self-possession have inspired comparisons to classic artists such as Gladys Knight and Chaka Khan as well as leading nouveau soulstresses such as Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill.
"I think [1998's] 'The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill' changed the way a lot of R&B artists are presenting their music," says Emil Wilbekin, editor in chief of Vibe. "With Lauryn and Erykah Badu and D'Angelo and Maxwell, there's been a return to live instruments, real singing and real love stories. I think Angie Stone is an outgrowth of that. Her songs embody love and pain and happiness; they make you stop and think, and really feel."
Stone fairly bubbles over with unaffected warmth, even as she's delicately picking at a salad in a tony midtown Manhattan restaurant. And she addresses subjects ranging from faith to dating with the frank conviction of a born evangelist. The singer credits Hill with making this sort of earthiness and directness fashionable in pop music.
"Lauryn broke the mold," says Stone, who is in her 30s. "Our society is so image-conscious, and she said that it's OK to be natural and beautiful and sing about something with substance. I'm flattered that people would throw me in that category. . . . But I don't have to ride on someone else's coattails. I've been doin' this for a long time."
Stone became interested in music while growing up in Columbia, S.C. Her father, an attorney's assistant, sang in a gospel quartet and with various other groups. Her mother, a medical lab technician, was more of "a kitchen singer--but with a beautiful voice," says Stone.
An only child, Stone dabbled in poetry before she began writing songs. "I would rush through my homework just to write poems," she says. She also excelled in sports, even fielding basketball scholarships. But in the early '80s, while still in her teens, she joined the early female rap group Sequence, using the name Angie B. They landed a recording contract with Sugar Hill Records and moved to the Bronx.
After Sequence disbanded, Stone moved to Bergenfield, N.J., where she currently lives, and began writing songs for Prince protegee Jill Jones. A stint playing saxophone in Kravitz's band followed, as did gigs performing in the neo-soul trio Vertical Hold and writing tunes for Blige and others. But recognition for Stone's own work continued to prove elusive.
"I thought my weight was an issue, I thought my age was an issue," says Stone, a larger than average woman. "I knew it wasn't my talent, because everybody wanted a piece of me for something. After a while, I started to feel used. I thought, 'If I'm good enough to help Mary, and to do this and that, what is the problem?' "
Stone's professional and personal prospects brightened when she met D'Angelo in the early '90s. The two became romantically involved while collaborating on songs for D'Angelo's 1995 album, "Brown Sugar," and eventually had a son, Michael D'Angelo Archer II, now 2 1/2. (Stone also has a 13-year-old daughter, Diamond Tiara Stone, from a brief marriage to rapper Rodney C.)
One song co-written by Stone and D'Angelo, "Everyday," gave Stone her big break when her recording of it was featured on the soundtrack to the 1997 film "Money Talks." Though she had signed to Arista Records in the U.K. earlier that year, the single--which is also featured on "Black Diamond"--convinced label executives that she should be marketed through Arista's U.S. division, which also handles such R&B divas as Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston and Monica.
"I think that [Arista chief executive and president] Clive [Davis], being a very savvy executive and having great ears, decided she needed to be here," says Derek Lafayette, director of artist development for Arista in the U.S. "We have such a strong urban roster that having her as part of the family made sense."
Although she and D'Angelo are no longer a couple, Stone emphasizes, "We have an incredible amount of love and respect for each other. We still find time to be together. Physically and spiritually, we're still very connected.
"But I have so many offers now from guys," she adds. "It's really exciting! There's this football player that wants to take me to the playoff game. He's gorgeous, and it's the first time since the birth of my son that I've thought remotely of getting involved with someone else. I would like to have a complete family. When you're doing well, you wanna share it with someone."
Ultimately, though, Stone reserves her greatest love for a higher authority.
"The one thing I've learned from this whole trip is how important it is to pay respect to God," she says. "I'm still in search of what's right for me, but I know that spiritually, I'm guided by the angels. That's what has brought me this far."