One of the most underrated R&B groups of the early nineties, Portrait returns to the scene with their new release Afro Trees. Since releasing the 2017 buzz single “In The Moment” (a grown folks bop) to a positive reception, Portrait have kept their fans waiting in anticipation for a new album. Serving as the group’s fifth release overall and first new album since 2005’s Share My Love , the group’s newest album finds Portrait (now a duo comprised of original members Philip Johnson and Michael Angelo Saulsberry,) releasing music in the digital age.
Instead of trying to keep up with current R&B trends (auto-tune, vulgar lyrics or rapper cameos), in house producer Michael Angelo Saulsberry updates the signature Portrait sound for 2020 and caters not only to fans who fans of the group, but those who enjoy timeless R&B production.
Opening with “Describe You” the song instantly will make male listeners hope in the car and just go for a summer drive with their significant other. Saulsberry produces the track with ease, showing off his production skills. Up next is “Love Song” which reminded of a nighttime summer beach concert. Johnson’s tenor carries the track to a musical euphoria.
Similar to the Portrait releases of yesteryear, Michael Angelo Saulsberry handles the bulk of production on Afro Trees. However when I discovered that one of my favorite producers Raphael Saadiq collaborated with the group for “I Feel So Alone”, I was ecstatic to hear the finished product. Saulsberry and Saadiq previously collaborated on three songs from Saadiq’s 2004 Ray Ray, so I was looking forward to their reunion. Fans of Saadiq’s production will instantly have burning ears, when they recognize some of his signature guitar riffs.
My favorite portion of the album would have to be tracks five though seven. Starting with the Les Whitaker assisted “Cum Over”, transitioning into “Pick Up” and ending with “Closer”, Johnson’s vocals mixed with Saulsberry’s production tell a great relationship story from the initial hook up to the chase and finally the commitment. Hollywood filmmakers should take note and consider using the songs for a romantic comedy. As a film person, the moment I heard the songs I was able to picture the songs as background music or during a montage.
Throughout the rest of the album, Saulsberry experiments with various sounds Chicago soul (“Love Is Everywhere”), EDM (“Good Love”) and Japanese melody (“Clear”). In a lesser producer’s hands the results could have been abysmal, but with the first-rate musical composition of Saulsberry, the songs a success. My only minuscule compliment with the album is the group didn’t give us one of their signature slow jams
While Afro Trees ranks number three (1995’s All That Matters & the 1992 self-titled debut hold the # 1 and 2 slots) in my favorite Portrait album rankings ,as a complete body of work, it’s a winner. No matter what the music genre is, not many music artists can take a fifteen year gap between releases and still sound fresh. The masses may feel that R&B is dead, but Portrait is doing their part to keep it alive.
Afro Trees can purchased exclusively on the group website at https://www.portraitmusik.com/shop
Final Grade: A
Album highlights – “Cum Over”, “Pick Up The Phone” ,”Closer”, “Love Song”