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How can you not love a band that kicks off a hit single with the declaration, “You can New Jack Swing on my nuts”? That was “If I Had No Loot,” a high point of Tony Toni Toné’s 1993 Sons of Soul. The album was both thoroughly modern and a tribute to the 25 years or so of great music that formed the Tonyies. Like the Pooh Sticks, the group borrowed and stole large bits of history in the service of its own affecting, very loving songs—all while keeping one eyebrow raised. Sons was a CD that offered a nudging throwback to the days when a would-be seducer might offer up “I’m an Aquarius” with a straight face.

Hardly anything in ’90s R&B has touched it. Filled with hyperspecific references to Sly, Smokey, the Spinners, and the Jackson 5 that cleverly powered the band’s own hooks, Sons of Soul also displayed the work of deeply resourceful songwriters who kept up with their audience. Samples of Ice Cube and A Tribe Called Quest were on loan. One cut parodied dance hall patois while also celebrating it in a manner that Kid Creole would appreciate; another hopped on the “Gangsta Groove” bandwagon while putting across a nonexploitative, recognizably human story. And when castigating an ex-girlfriend who’d dropped out of USC to pursue work as a “ho,” singer Raphael Saadiq was careful to point out his willingness to take her back.

On House of Music, Tony Toni Toné continues to keep it real—real enough to remind a lady friend, preparty, to “leave your children at the nursery so you can slow grind” to “Anniversary,” Sons of Soul’s biggest hit. After a multiyear hiatus following the tours for that album, the group is back with a record much more laid-back than the hyperactively brilliant Sons. The new disc takes longer to kick in, but when it does, a satisfied nod and a press of the “repeat” button are only natural.

House of Music begins with “Thinking of You,” an homage to Al Green’s classic Hi Records sides. Even while wishing for another chance with his lover, though, Saadiq can’t resist making a droll aside about “the clock on the wall…and everything that crawls around my house.” The next track, “Top Notch,” promises a trip to Denny’s for “the most expensive dinner we can find.” This playfulness carries over to “Holy Smokes & Gee Whiz,” a sweet, masterful update of the Stylistics’ “Betcha By Golly, Wow,” which contains such a dead-on impression of Russell Thompkins’ unmistakable falsetto and precise diction that the singer should be able to sue, or at least get hooked up with a guest spot on the next album.

With knowing lightheartedness and musical command still clearly in effect, House spends a large part of its time not trying to prove a thing, and then proving a lot. The single “Let’s Get Down,” a Sugar Hill-style party number with guest rapper DJ Quik, all but defines deceptive effortlessness, putting acoustic guitar and oddball percussion out front. “Top Notch” is as shimmeringly stonéd as Here, My Dear-era Marvin Gaye, without the psychic damage.

Another peak moment, the epic ballad “Still a Man,” finds Saadiq delivering a twist on current black reality by singing in the voice of a man whose wife has left him to raise the children. Flowing and peaking over seven minutes, the track becomes a meditation on the order of Green’s cover of “For the Good Times.” And a series of slow burners in the album’s second half culminates in “Party Don’t Cry,” which expresses an overt spirituality unheard in the Tonyies’ past songs. It feels like a key to the record’s hushed nature and makes you wonder what’s been happening in these guys’ lives to prompt a meditation on living and dying. (A hint or two: Saadiq’s last name used to be Wiggins, he appears in several of House’s William Claxton booklet photos in the suit and bow tie of the Nation of Islam, and his closing interlude’s sole lyric is a universalist platitude.)

Actually, that song’s writing credits go to D’wayne Wiggins and Timothy Christian Riley. The former also contributes one of the most intriguing cuts, a gloss on The Crying Game that also slyly replaces the hooks of “Billie Jean” with “Annie May” and “Is it a girl or is it a guy?” The tune’s funky antagonist wants to “touch you, feel you, but…can’t go all the way.” The dilemma Annie’s undefined friend faces also seems to reverberate through “Don’t Fall in Love,” whose basic message about adult romance is couched in a surprising question: “Have you ever fell in love with a woman who wasn’t a woman?” They’re really making a point about her refusal to grow up, but even after that idea kicks in, the head-turning surprise lingers.

That kind of skill really pays the bills, and it’s what makes Tony Toni Toné such an invaluable part of the landscape as the—can it be?—late ’90s descend. If the follow-up to House of Music takes another three years to arrive, every long second of waiting will be worth it. CP