Sports are shut down, but there is still room for underdog stories: “She,” a single from the 52-year-old Stokley Williams, quietly leapfrogged two long-running hits, Chris Brown and Drake’s “No Guidance” and Wale and Jeremih’s “On Chill,” to reach Number One at R&B radio on Monday. “No Guidance” and “On Chill” are both platinum-certified juggernauts, major successes from last summer that refuse to go away. Stokley barely eked out a victory after a 29-week climb.
Stokley is hardly an unknown quantity — for decades, he was the lead-singer and drummer in the Minneapolis R&B institution Mint Condition, a group that scored hits with acrobatic ballads like “Breakin’ My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes)” and “What Kind of Man Would I Be?” Still, any sort of commercial success for an artist who breaks solo in his fifties is unlikely. “You have to feel like water off a duck’s back if it doesn’t happen,” Stokley acknowledges. “But sometimes you get it right where you know it should be. I’m just getting some legs on this thing.”
Thanks in part to Stokley’s arena-funk drumming and soaring vocals, Mint Condition was one of the last surviving R&B bands, a group that connected to the genre’s pre-hip-hop performance traditions while also winning over young fans in the 1990s. Mint Condition were signed by the super-producer duo Jam & Lewis, former Prince band members who went on to craft kinetic hits for the S.O.S. Band, Cherrelle, and most importantly, Janet Jackson. And Stokley also worked with Jam & Lewis in sessions, playing drums for Jackson, Johnny Gill, and Usher.
He calls his decision to go solo after more than 30 years with Mint Condition “a natural progression.” “For a group of people to do anything that long is pretty remarkable,” Stokley adds. “Life is only so long. You want to milk every experience, have different experiences.”
Even as some things change, though, others remain the same. Stokley is involved once again with Jam & Lewis, who relaunched their Perspective Records label in 2018, through a joint venture. Perspective enjoyed its first success with Peabo Bryson, another gifted R&B vocalist who returned after more than ten years of silence and scored a Number One radio hit with “Love Like Yours and Mine.” Jam & Lewis “are here to lend a set of extra years and whatever else that I need,” Stokley says. “It’s a beautiful full circle.”
R&B radio is predominantly a love song format, but Stokley wanted to spruce up the formula with “She.” “It’s about a woman,” he explains, but “it’s not just about things that you like — it also takes in those moments that are a little challenging for you. You’re taking the bad with the good. Good, bad, terrible, ugly, beautiful, all of it.” Williams self-produced the track, which mixes soft keyboards with programmed electronic drums and builds towards a churchy, multi-tracked chorus: “She!”
“She” is the lead single from a new album, Sankofa, which Stokley promises will traverse funk — “back in the day we had that genre,” he jokes — “1990s inspired stuff” and music that “sounds like the modern day.” While variety is a given, the release date remains uncertain; the global pandemic has put the roll-out on hold.
The success of “She,” which reached nearly 12 million listeners on the airwaves last week, serves to vindicate Stokley’s new chapter. But he is still working hard to establish a rapport with an audience outside of the Mint Condition world. “People have a perception of the group, and it’s hard to get out of that,” he says. “They are used to ‘Pretty Brown Eyes,’ ‘U Send Me Swingin’. I love those. It’s just that there are other things that I want to get out.”
“Some people wait for what they know you for,” Stokley continues. But he’s confident that there’s another contingent of potential converts out there. “Other people,” he adds, “you catch them on this new angle that you got.”