Outside of Brooke Valentine , the most underrated R&B performer of the last 10 years is almost certainly Toya (not to be confused with LeToya. A St. Louis native, Toya released one self-titled album in 2001, had a minor hit with the single “I Do!!” and then completely disappeared.
That one album, though, is something else. Toya was clearly influenced by Destiny’s Child rhythmic, quasi-rap sing-song, independent woman stance, and Kevin Briggs beats. But she’s also a huge fan of disco and of Latin music. The result is one of the most distinctive sounds of the oughts. The first track, “No Matta What (Party All Night) beats even Prince’s “1999” as a rapturous ode to partying. It opens with a quiet piano figure — the first skittery, fuzzed-out beats sound like a series of bombs detonating. Then the producer adds layers of ping-pong vocals, electronic burps, and Toya’s vocal soaring up, tinged with that retro-eighties yearning that always gets me right in the thorax. I’ve listened to this track about 20 times over the last couple of days, and it just never gets old — if there’s a Platonic pop single, this is what it sounds like.
The rest of the album is great too. “How Can I Be Down” flirts with a Latin percussion sound mixed into more standard R&B rhythms. “The Truth” is a gloriously full-bore Saturday Night Fever tribute. “What Else Can I Do” funks up the drum part from “Scentless Apprentice” and adds some seventies waa-waa guitar. “Fiasco” has a huge, off-kilter beat which almost drowns out Toya as she wonders should she or shouldn’t she, noting that “sometimes boys can treat you so ghetto/I don’t want to say I told you so.”
As this suggests, the lyrics, like the music, are smart and winning throughout. The subject matter is about what you’d expect — cheating, partying, love. But it’s put across with just the right balance of street smarts, earnestness, and intelligence. “I Messed Up” is a nicely gender-switched plea for forgiveness — with a few more curse words, and a more old-school backing you could see Amy Winehouse singing it. “Moving On” is a Soulshock/Karlin number about mourning which recalls some of the emotional complex vacillations of classic Rod Stewart — “And it was God that made me able/To finally sleep at night/Though you’re not by my side….I tried to move on but you’re not gone/Cuz in my heart you still live on.” Best of all, though, is “I Do,” which couples a killer strutting beat with some of the goofiest hipster patter going — “He had a hickey in his pocket/A fat rock in his ear/He made my heart start palpitating/every time he came near.” What’s a “hickey” mean in this context, you ask? Well, a glossary is helpfully provided with the liner notes.
The only downside to this album, in fact, is the knowledge that there aren’t any more. Toya’s still out there somewhere, probably still in her twenties, probably still bursting with ideas and talent. But this is it — I doubt she’ll ever make another record. Which really sucks.