REVIEW: Robert Glasper Experiment’s “Black Radio”

Photobucket Robert Glasper has been one of the more adventurous jazz artists in the last 5 years, managing to get a hold of a hip-hop following for his recreations of Dilla-productions while showing how much of a renaissance man he can be with some of his works. Black Radio (Blue Note) was gaining attention months before it was released, as people were discovering who would be sitting in on this album. It was a bevy of guests, and one by one, the names were being dropped. Was Glasper wanting to be more accessible, or simply widening his pallet? Nothing wrong with either, but it was the music people were either to hear.

Black Radio could be a statement. This is a collection of all new material with The Robert Glasper Experiment collaborating with a number of soul vocalists and a few rappers to show what “black radio” is all about. However, if one were to turn to the average black radio station in 2012, you might not hear any of these artists. Perhaps that’s the point. The album is a throwback to the soul of the mid to late 70’s and early 80’s, back when music felt like family and the people involved were loved and respected as aunties, uncles, and grandparents. You respected your elders, you never raised a hand or voice, and much of that family vibe was carried on by some but ignored or passed off as non-essential. As soul music changed into something else, it remained hidden but was always. It manifested itself with a new name, but the neo-soul pushed by the media was nothing more than the old soul, and being old was not looked upon. But it had to be neo, be it new or neon, and sadly, going back to a soulful and funky vibe would eventually divide people into thinking modern R&B was what the music was all about, while everything else was “jazz”, code word for “old people music”. If you want me to be blunt, consider this music of the old people.

When you hear people like Erykah Badu, Ledisi, KING, Me’Shell NdegeOcello, and Lalah Hathaway, you are hearing some damn good soul. In this context, you also tend to hear the roots of this music, which is very much in the jazz tradition. You hear the warmth and sexiness of some of these tracks, but that leans to gospel too, the feel good jubilation that is very much about spirituality and a relief that one has made it through one more day. Musiq and Chrisette Michele duet in “Ah Yeah”, but the vocalist who literally steals this album is someone that I was not fond of when I bought his debut album. In fact, I put it on eBay right after I bought it. Over the years, I’ve changed my mind and now get into what he’s doing. That singer is Bilal, and he has two songs to his name, “Letter To Hermione” and “Always Shine”, the latter featuring Lupe Fiasco.

The music is perfect for a Sunday afternoon picnic, but as I had stated in my brief comment about it on Twitter, one wants to hear this with scented oils and a pitcher of water on the nightstand, it’s that type of album. You can dance, you can slow dance, you can relax and celebrate this with friends, or you can get nude and turn off all the lights, but it’s an album that is meant to be listened to as a whole, first and foremost. The album was once celebrated as an invitation to the party, if not an emotion or mood, and this is a party you wish you did not have to leave.

The album ends with a smooth and luxurious cover of Nirvana‘s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, and as a longtime Nirvana fan, I wondered how they were going to do this. Glasper does a brilliant job. As for its placement here, it might be a statement in itself. More than likely, whatever the state of black radio is in 2012, this album will probably be ignored. It might be heard on a few smooth jazz radio stations, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Nirvana cover received the most attention. It should, as the arrangement might startle those who are used to the original’s solidarity for individuality, but Black Radio is very much in the same vein. As the last verse in the song states:
“and I forget just why I taste
oh yeah, I guess it makes me smile
I found it hard, it’s hard to find
oh well, whatever, nevermind”

Has soul and jazz been tossed off and forgotten, in a “eh, nevermind, who cares” manner? The song originally ended with Kurt Cobain singing “a denial”, and in a way, is black radio in 2012 in denial of the true strengths and power of the music. Yes, this music very much can make you and I smile, and when you turn on the radio, sometimes it’s so hard to find. Fuck it, nevermind, it’s not here. As distant as Nirvana may be to soul, funk, and jazz, the moment you isolate any musical and lyrical reference without its costume, you realize how distant the music has become from… itself?

It’s something to ponder, but maybe if one really needs to find the good stuff, then Robert Glasper is offering people a chance to tune into his network. Black radio once served the community, and perhaps Black Radio is meant to do that for those who wish to seek what has been lost, or at least to relocate the musical welcome mat that was arguably destroyed by gentrification, from the outside or the inside.

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SOME STUFFS: Robert Glasper explores today’s definition of “Black Radio” with special guests

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The term “Black radio” was something that was never meant to exclude non-blacks from listening to the airwaves. It’s music, commentary, news, and programming was created and targeted to a specific audience that was excluded by white-owned radio stations, and done as a way to say “we have been more than capable of creating our own entertainment, we’d also like to cater to our audiences as well, but everyone is free to listen.” However, what was defined as “black radio” started to change in the 1970’s as big companies wanted to own that influence so that they could make their own influences under the guise of “black radio”. It was in 1987 when Public Enemy‘s Chuck D said “radio stations, I question their blackness, they call themselves black, well let’s see if they’ll play this”. It was all money and politics, and 25 years later, things are far worse, especially with the state of radio.

In 2011, you might hear about the term “black Twitter”, which is in many ways a modern interpretation of what “black radio” used to be and represent. Jazz musician Robert Glasper is about to take on the world with a brand new album called Black Radio (Blue Note) and he’s doing it as Robert Glasper Experiment. He’s not along in this, as the album will include Erykah Badu, Me’Shell NdegeOcello, King, Lalah Hathaway, Lupe Fiasco, Bilal, Shafiq Husayn of SA-RA, Musiq Soulchild, Yasiin Bey/Mos Def, and others.

The guests are interesting, but as with any jazz album with its share of collaborators, look at what’s being covered. Badu will be heard in a cover of “Afro Blue”, Bilal shows up in David Bowie‘s “Letter To Hermione”, and Hathaway will be taking on Sade‘s “Cherish The Day”. Some of these artists will perhaps be heard on smooth jazz radio for the first time, one of the few places on mainstream radio where you may here them.

But how about a Nirvana song with a vocoder-treated vocal? You know this is going to irk the shit out of people, but I welcome it. In this case, Casey Benjamin will be singing “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, which may mean it will be the first time the song will be heard on not only Black Radio, but “black radio”. Glasper is questioning their blackness when radio stations call themselves black, but let’s see if they will play this and other songs from the album.

Glasper has been taking his music on some incredible adventures, so it will be interesting to see how fans and “black radio” will welcome this. The album is scheduled for release on February 28th.

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