There is almost too muchgoodness here, but let’s catalogue some of it:
A cover of one of my favorite Sly and the Family Stone songs. Rising R&B and soul star (and resident singer-songwriter of J. Cole’s Dreamville Records) Ari Lennox’s confident, smooth vocals. Original Broadway Cast of Hamilton’sAnthony Ramos’s impassioned crooning. Their chemistry as vocalists. The mission behind the collaboration, which is part of a partnership between The Main Street Alliance and Crown Royal, who launched a national relief campaign to help bars, clubs, and other music venues at risk of shutting down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Proceeds raised from every stream of Lennox and Ramos’s If You Want Me to Stay will be donated to the fund.
None of that would matter if the song didn’t deliver. Ooooo, but it does. A faithful rendition of the original, Lennox and Ramos’s version retains Sly and the Family Stone’s pulsing groove while smoothing everything else out. The bass guitar is more liquid, less popped. Where Sly’s vocals have bite, this duet’s vocals are all buttery soul.
These are the kinds of tracks that birthed In My Ear — as a concept and a blog. Songs so good — songs that just absolutely bury themselves into my brain — that I want to talk about them. Share them in a way I do: by writing about them. Share the wonder they bring me.
Brasstracks are trumpeter Ivan Jackson and drummer Conor Rayne, friends and collaborators from their short-lived days at Manhattan School of Music. Together as a duo since 2014, Golden Ticket is the lead single off their same-titled debut full-length LP, which came out two weeks ago.
It’s jazzy, soulful, funky, and, above all, joyful. That’s it. That’s all you need to know.
New music from Nao? And, it’s a collaboration with Lianne La Havas?! I doubt I’ve ever downloaded a track faster when this dropped just two days ago on Monday. I am such big fans of each of them that, honestly, they could have just hummed together for three minutes or read menus from their favorite takeout joints and I would have been writing about it.
But, thankfully rather than either of those options, they released a banger. A song that drives hard with a steady, throbbing bass and drum track, but that is made equally sultry with Nao and La Havas’s vocals. All I heard on my first listen of Woman was the music; their voices complementing each other so smoothly in the verses, swirling together in the choruses, and the track just nodding along with an upbeat-but-smokey vibe.
On my second listen, I heard the statement of the song. The lyrics to back up the title:
"Baby I'm living in this magic place /
It's showing me that God's a woman, yeah /
So maybe you should worship me /
Yeah, I'm reigning the sky"
Announcing the track release, Nao wrote on Instagram: “I truly believe this is the start of a new dawn where being a woman – esp a woman of colour – can and should be celebrated. This is our time! We all deserve to be celebrated.”
And, celebrate Nao and La Havas do here, with stunning artwork from Tishk Barzanji (@tishkbarzanji) to accompany and make glow the sense of joy, honor, and empowerment this song delivers.
Earlier this summer, Los Angeles rapper Buddy dropped the single Black 2 — a follow up to his standout 2018 collaboration track Black with A$AP Ferg and another in the increasingly long line of musicians (especially Black artists) stepping up with important, insightful, and absolutely bomb records reflecting this current moment in history and protesting police brutality, racial injustice, and white supremacy.
Everything about this track is tight and on point. From the album cover (a direct homage to the famous Life Magazine photograph of Malcolm X pulling back the hotel curtains with his left hand and holding a machine gun in his right)…..
…to the hypnotic, endlessly catchy, and ironically upbeat beat (in direct contrast to the message of the track)….
….to the rapid-fire lyrics calling out white America’s systemic racism and it’s persistent appropriation of Black culture without commensurate compensation or representation.
My shit black-owned
If you ain't a n*gga, then you can't say "n*gga
It's a black thing (It's a black thing), yeah
Spike Lee, Do the Right Thing (Right Thing), uh
Don't step on my Nikes, just got these
Go rogue for the neckpiece, n*gga
Yup, in my white tee (Yup)
Know you wanna be just like me, huh?
'Til the police wanna lock me up
Everybody wanna be black, don’t nobody wanna be a n*gga, uh
Feel like Malcolm X, peekin’ outside my window
Everybody wanna be black, but don’t nobody wanna be a n*gga
Political messages aside, this is just more great music and content from an artist who has stayed busy after his 2018 breakout record Harlan & Alondra and continues to grow artistically. Or, as he also raps on this track, “Finally got a pot I can piss in / Workin’ overtime, and you can tell if you listened.” This year, he’s released an additional single to Black 2 and a collaboration EP Janktape Vol. 1 as continues to steadily carve out his own brand of hazy, melodic, West Coast funk driven hip hop.
In the two weeks since this record dropped on July 10, I have listened to it everywhere and in every state of mind. At night, immersed in my headphones and raging from the day’s news. In the kitchen, quietly distracted while making dinner. At the table, eating that dinner and listening to my kids’ exploits. In the car, running errands and cruising with the windows down on a hot day. In the morning, reading James Baldwin with coffee and feeling heady and philosophical before starting the workday.
At all of those moments and in all of those moods, it works. It works every single time.
Dinner Party is the debut self-titled album of a new collaboration and supergroup of jazz , soul, and hip-hop luminaries: Kamasi Washington, Terrace Martin, Robert Glasper, and 9th Wonder (Patrick Douthit) — with significant contributions from Chicago R&B vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, and producer Phoelix. The sheer amount of talent and artistic chops among this group is astounding, as are the connections to each other as lifelong friends, collaborators, and influencers of modern musical art and culture.
From those connections and resultant mutual respect comes an album that is remarkable for its skill, craft, and restraint. This is an utterly smooth, peaceful-sounding record. It’s brimming with ideas, not egos. First Responders nods along with a warm neo-soul groove backed by a tight beat track. LUV U blends jazz-fusion with 80s electro-funk. From My Heart and My Soul is spacey and atmospheric. But, throughout, Martin, Washington, Glasper, and Douthit manage to mesh their individual talents into a cohesive musical statement; a commitment to a singular, overarching vibe of relaxed self-assuredness.
In the spirit of Marvin Gaye (a hero and artistic touchstone for them all), this is also the most modest and quietly powerful protest record you are likely to hear this year. The breezy melodies and lush production of Sleepless Nights and Freeze Tag ironically belie dire lyrics speaking on police brutality and America’s disregard for Black lives.
As the group”s name and album title suggest, this record feels like you are being invited to something special. An intimate gathering to chill around a table, talk about meaningful things, talk about changing, be real, be honest, and vibe out to what’s playing on the stereo.
This track from John Legend’s new record Bigger Love is pure magic.
I’ve been a John Legend fan for a looong time now. Hiding somewhere in my CD collection is an early demo, copied for me by a friend whose own…cousin? friend?…worked with Legend somehow and had access to early studio recordings and some live cuts of tracks that would form the backbone of his breakout 2004 record Get Lifted. Then, like now, his persona was magnetic, his musical talents were boundless, and his voice was immediately iconic.
If I’m being honest, though, I’ve drifted in-and-out of most of his ensuing albums. I tune out for the bulk of his saccharine, piano-backed-by-strings love song canon — which are most of his biggest hits AND constitute a lot of the vibe on Bigger Love. But, I tune in when he applies and layers that voice on top of more vibrant beats and toward richer lyrical content, like on 2016’s Darkness and Light.
All of that said, there is little resistance one can muster up when Legend connects on a track like he does on U Move, I Move — a string-soaked love song of the kind I just said “meh” to in the last paragraph. (Who am I, right?!)
The unique arrangement offers a more interesting, less traditional song structure than his go-to piano ballads. The production is great, seamlessly weaving lots of scratchy, jittery background drum and synth sounds into an otherwise smoothly flowing, almost liquid melody. The feel is intoxicatingly airy and atmospheric; there is so much damn space for Legend’s voice to croon and soar and blend with Jhené Aiko’s. Their voices are sublime together.
I loved this track on first listen. But, it took me a few more listens to accept the pause it provides in the midst of everything raging right now. And, to remember that there is always a need to be moved by beauty. Not just love or hope or positivity (all things Legend sought to emote with this record), but beauty. To ache at the feeling of it even, and especially, when confronted with so much that is ugly. I love this track for giving me that reminder.
At this point in his career and my fandom, I find that any singles, albums, or guest features that Anderson .Paak puts out are 100% gold.
Lockdown, the song he dropped last Friday, June 19 (Juneteenth), is more evidence to that statement. It’s a deliciously funky and soulful track with a righteous, rolling bass line groove that belies .Paak’s fiery, incisive lyrics supporting the #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations, speaking out on racism and white supremacy, police brutality, injustice, and reflecting on the intersections of those protests — this moment and movement — with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The accompanying video is notable for it’s visual power, the rage that doesn’t automatically come through in .Paak’s flow and smooth vocals, and how the video advances the full scope of .Paak’s political messages in the track. It’s also notable for a tight Jay Rock verse that is not included in the streaming version.
It’s heady, emotional, determined stuff set to a smooth beat, in the canon of Marvin Gaye protest music. While it might provide a sonic moment of respite and quiet in your protest playlist (set against RJT4, Public Enemy, Rage Against the Machine, etc.), it is no less a call to action from .Paak and a verbal fist raised in solidarity against that daily threatens his Black life.
There is no single soundtrack for the moment in America we are in right now. But, my bet is that there is at least one Run the Jewels track on nearly every playlist that sets out to capture, reflect, or otherwise document in music what’s going on (RIP Marvin Gaye).
Killer Mike and El-P are back with the fourth installment of their Run the Jewels partnership. And, true to form, they are laying waste to the structures of power and privilege in this country. The police. Capitalism and the wealthy ruling class. The current President. The government surveillance state. The prison-industrial complex.
Greater hip-hop heads than me know the solo career lineages of Killer Mike and El-P, respectively, and the development of their sound over time. Full of individual swagger, political rage, and raw-sounding, industrial beats, they’ve always channeled “heavy” hip-hop. The hard-edged, rock-and-metal-tinged sound of Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, EPMD, etc. Few rap outfits active today traffic in that vein, none as consistently raucous, inventive, and tight as RTJ.
RTJ4 is packed with standout moments and standout tracks. walking in the snow is an deeep track: a visceral diatribe on police brutality and violence and, from Killer Mike, some of the most on-point social commentary on racism, modern media, and white privilege/inaction from anyone, anywhere. the ground below is as much a hip-hop track as it is punk anthem, with a middle-finger straight up to haters and some of the most deft lyrics on the record. ooh la la is somehow both woozy and a stomper at same time. But, I’m picking the opening track to feature here — yankee and the brave (ep. 4) — because it comes hard out of the gate and sets the tone for all that follows: an unrelenting barrage of tight raps, focused fury, and pounding, funky beats.
RTJ just keeps getting better. And, with this new record, they’ve created a modern classic.
This moment in time and in American history is an exceedingly appropriate backdrop for the music of Mourning a Blakstar and for their recently released double LP The Cycle.
A self-described “multi-generational, gender and genre non-conforming amalgam of Black Culture dedicated to servicing the stories and songs of the apocalyptic diaspora,” Mourning a Blkstar — consisting of vocalists James Longs, Kyle Kidd and LaToya Kent, guitarist Peter Saudek, trumpet player Theresa May, drummer Dante Foley, and trombonist/founder William “Ra” Washington — comes with a message and a mission drawn from James Baldwin of artist as witness.
The Cycle (their fourth full-length release) is thematically and lyrically focused on love and personal relationships within the dissonant, chaotic present moment. Or, as the group writes on its website:
“It is our song cycle in a time that just may need a song or two in support of and in love and power to the living.“
It is a sonically ambitious, sweeping, visceral record that draws on the full gamut of Black and African diaspora musical traditions. It is a record that demands to be heard and felt in full (it is not a listen-while-doing-the-dishes kind of record), lest you miss the many messages, nuances, and influences woven throughout the album. For example, Ra Washington commented in an interview:
“One of the unseen components of this record is, I’m running a few pedals giving surface noise and hiss to a bass tone and then placing that underneath the entire recording, just constantly having that low rumble underneath the whole entire cycle of songs. To me, this acted as a metaphor for how we as marginalised POC folk have to create beauty above the noise of an imperial country, how we push past that noise to create a truth for ourselves, and then humbly share that truth with anyone willing to listen.”
My favorite track is Sense of an Ending. It is an incredibly immersive and propulsive track, dissonant, soulful, and deeply funky; a perfect encapsulation of the driving thesis of this record while also being an immediate ear worm. And, like the record as a whole, it accomplishes the difficult task of feeling timeless, timely, and futuristic all at once.