I am ashamed of myself for having slept on Robert Glasper for so long. It’s not like the Texas-raised instrumentalist hasn’t been on my radar-he’s racked up credits for a list of artists that would read like my musical All-Star team: Meshell Ndegeocello, Bilal and Kanye, to name a few. Friends have been recommending his music to me for a couple of years now. For not paying prompt attention, I should be punished.
Of course, it helps that the Robert Glasper Experiment’s latest album, Black Radio, is an all-star album of sorts. Ndegeocello and Bilal appear on this set, as do Erykah Badu, Mos Def, Lupe Fiasco and others. It’s easily the most commercial set released by this band so far, and it’s a solid effort that, in line with the music I most enjoy, straddles a variety of genres. It’s roots are in jazz and soul, but Black Radio has a pinky toe in genres ranging from hip-hop to Latin music and rock. It’s a fairly accurate representation of what black radio sounded like when I was a kid (Frankie Crocker, I will be forever indebted to you.) It’s a fairly accurate representation of how black radio itself SHOULD sound now, but doesn’t.
Glasper’s band is tight and proficient in a way that suggests The Roots. It’s kind of a lazy comparison-how many other soul bands are even in existence right now?-but it’s still fairly accurate. The band is in the pocket, occasionally experimenting but never showing off. That style of playing lends itself to a very consistent sounding album—there’s not a particular track that will send you hurtling into the stratosphere, but by the same token, there’s also no song that will have you running for the skip button.
Guest artists aside, casual listeners will probably first be attracted to Black Radio by virtue of two excellent covers. Lalah Hathaway brings her smoky vocals to a rendition of Sade’s 1993 hit “Cherish The Day,” and while nothing can touch the original, Lalah does a fantastic job. This was the track that hooked me and put this album on my must-buy list when I heard it a few weeks ago. However, the cover that will probably get the most press is the album-closing remake of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” This song has been covered many, many times over the years, but Glasper’s version splits the difference neatly between funk and prog-rock. It’s an incredible rendition. Kurt would probably have dug it.
While the set is midtempo and ballad heavy, the real magic happens when the tempo goes up a little. The title track is an interesting piece. Mos Def’s vocal interjections are little more than repetitions of the title in various tones and inflections, but it still adds to the spacey vibe of the track. Meanwhile, Mint Condition’s Stokley adds fantastic vocals to “Why Do We Try,” which has a bit of a Latin flavor to it. “Always Shine” teams Bilal up with Lupe Fiasco, and Lupe is enjoyable enough here that I almost forgive him for the absolutely horrid Lasers. Almost.
Not to say the slower jams are bad, not by any stretch of the imagination. “Ah Yeah” teams Musiq Soulchild up with Chrisette Michele, and while the individual work of both singers is ridiculously inconsistent, they team up for a nice Marvin/Tammi style love song here. Another one of my favorites is “The Consequences of Jealousy,” on which the always-sensual vocals of Meshell Ndegeocello take center stage.
Commercially-minded soul music is so starved for good albums that anything with the vaguest musical merit tends to be overrated (*cough*Janelle Monae*cough*) and I’ve already seen a couple of rapturous reviews of Black Radio. However, while the album isn’t the game-changer some members of the press have made it out to be, it’s still an engaging listen from beginning to end, and establishes Glasper on my personal radar once and for all.