John Legend – U Move, I Move (feat. Jhené Aiko)

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.

Website | Facebook | Instagram | Apple Music | Spotify

Anderson .Paak – Lockdown

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.

Website | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube | Spotify | Apple Music

Black Pumas – Fast Car

Today’s post….just a sweet, plaintive cover of Tracy Chapman’s classic song from In My Ear favorites, Black Pumas.

I heard this and it felt like a balm on my mind and my heart.

For the many of you who read this blog and are pressing for needed change — within yourself, your families, your community, and this world we all share — hear this and rest.

Rest, even if just for a few minutes. Restore. And, then ready yourself to go again. And, again. And, again.

Facebook | Instagram | YouTube

Run the Jewels – RTJ4

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.

Website | Facebook | Instagram | Soundcloud | Spotify | Apple Music

Mourning a Blkstar – Sense of an Ending

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.

Website | Facebook | Instagram | Soundcloud | Spotify | Apple Music

#BlackLivesMatter

In 2000, as the capstone to my undergraduate degree (Bachelor of Arts, History), I wrote a thesis about funk music and Black identity in the 1970s. It was one of the most powerful, challenging, and joyful learning experiences of my life — despite some pretty overwrought language and ironically achieved by this white, suburban kid at a small, liberal-arts, homogenous-but-trying college in Maine.

As a course of study, it went beyond the culmination of an academic and experiential deep-dive into African-American and African history and culture. As a “life moment,” it went beyond the joining together of consciously and unconsciously impactful experiences I had had to-date (my father’s love of jazz and doo-wop; my aunt’s social activism and commitment to racial and social justice; my other aunt’s love of Lionel Richie; my innate sensitivity to and awareness of unfairness and other perspectives from my own; Whitney. Fucking. Houston).

That thesis and that entire period of my life was an admittedly overdue awakening to 1) American history that is intentionally kept hidden, 2) the white privilege I possess, 3) the white dominant culture and systems that operate every moment of our American lives, and 4) the tradition and experience of African and Black American music that I have forever loved, aesthetically, and that has taught me about the world as it truly is.

Or, as my fellow music nut @albumoperator (Instagram) wrote in a post:

I am eternally grateful to this lineage of black American music and the transformative education it has given me, shaping how I see the world and teaching me about my role in this seemingly eternal American struggle.

Instagram @albumoperator, May 31, 2020, https://www.instagram.com/p/CA3ayOapXrn/

Or, as noted ethnomusicoloigsts Portia K. Maultsby and Mellonee V. Burnim have written:

“Through musical expression, Afro-Americans are able to affirm their cultural identify in a way that supplies positive reinforcement in the midst of an imposing dominant culture.”

“From Backwoods to City Streets: The Afro-American Musical Journey,” in Expressively Black: The Cultural Basis of Ethnic Identity ed. Geneva Gay and Willie L. Barber (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1987), 134.

Or, as Q-Tip spits:

“The world is kinda cold and the rhythm is my blanket / Wrap yourself up in it / If you love it, then you’ll thank it.”

Verses from the Abstract,” The Low End Theory, A Tribe Called Quest, 1991.

Later today, a new post.

This morning, solidarity.

And, a call for all those who love blues, jazz, gospel, rock-and-roll, R&B, soul, funk, rap, hip-hop, neo-soul, or modern pop but who are not connecting the dots between that music and the current protests and calls for racial justice — to listen harder.

Thao & the Get Down Stay Down – Phenom

In the same vein of Wednesday’s post about Fiona Apple and artists that don’t sound like anyone else except themselves, I was stoked to see a new record from Thao & the Get Down Stay Down come out last week. Temple is the group’s fifth album and it comes four years removed from their previous release, A Man Alive, which was one of my favorite records in 2016.

The San Francisco-based band fronted by Thao Nguyen remains as vibrantly creative as always, but Nguyen talks openly how it is her and the band’s most personal record to-date. Previously unspoken or ambiguously referenced topics of Nguyen’s family, her sexuality, gender politics and norms, and her own personal journey are laid bare in the lyrics. Perhaps because it’s new lyrical territory for the band and/or that the words are just that skillfully crafted, but the record feels intimate from the jump and absolutely authentic.

Lyrics aside, it is the band’s distinct indie-pop rock sound that continues to stand out and totally grab me. There are lots of influences (punk, hip-hop, 80s synth tones, garage rock, and Khruangbin-like, Southeast Asian funk beats and range-y guitar riffs), but they all hang together on an accessible, catchy record that offers something new with each track.

Phenom, my personal favorite track, is a great example of Thao &The Get Down Stay Down’s magic. The song blends dissonant chords and a jangly, off-kilter guitar riff with a throbbing bass line and Nguyen’s vocals as instrument (sometimes staccato; sometimes veering up-and-down a minor key scale) to create a completely hypnotic, woozy, unforgettable track — ending with the anthemic, defiant scream against “I am an old phenomenon.”

So good.

Website | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube | Spotify | Apple Music

Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters

There’s been a lot of ink spilled (font characters typed? what’s the digital analog for that phrase?) about this new record from Fiona Apple released last month.

It’s a fucking masterpiece.

I am not aiming to add more to that public record with this post. People who actually get paid for writing about music (unlike me) have got it covered. Check here, here, and here.

I’m writing about it here because I love it. And, y’all should listen to it. *Really* listen to it. The music is arresting; both stripped down and elaborate at the same time. Raw and rugged and heavy on the minor chords in ways that sound exactly like Apple’s other work without sounding redundant at all as it veers woozily from influences of drum-and-bass, delta blues, spoken word, and classical piano arrangements. The mark of a classic; instantly recognizable, but new and fresh all the same.

And, lyrically. I mean, damn. Apple’s lyrics are deeeep and real; an artist creatively wrestling with herself and her time in ways both exceedingly personal and universal.

Shameika and Heavy Balloon are two standout tracks for me, but this is a record to be listened to in full. Over and over and over again.


Facebook | Instagram | YouTube | Spotify | Apple Music

Alina Baraz – More Than Enough

I’ve been a fan of Alina Baraz’s ever since her 2015 debut EP Urban Flora, a project created in partnership with Danish producer Galimatias. I come back to this record over and over again. It’s absolutely hypnotic, with Baraz’s breathy vocals draped over beats that, in her hands, all seem to burn hot and slow like embers. She stands out among other pop R&B artists — and draws me in, helplessly — because of that combination of gauzy vocals and atmospheric production.

Since Urban Flora, she’s released a handful of singles and a second EP (2018’s The Color of You) building up to the release yesterday of her gorgeous debut full-length record It Was Divine. This is a record for after hours; one to sink into late at night. It is starkly intimate and hazily ethereal in equal measure, which matches perfectly with the album’s subject of love in all its forms (timeless and breathless all the way to painful and confusing). The songs lean less on electronica and more on 90s era melodic R&B, but the result is the same: a quiet-storm sensuality and a decidedly aching quality that makes for a captivating listen. A guest appearance by Nas doesn’t hurt either.

It was Divine is also is an album that has the quality of an album; more than a collection of tracks, but songs planned to fit together in a certain way. Straight away, however, I was taken with More Than Enough because it is the song that reminds me most of her earliest EP and what I felt hearing Baraz for the first time — utterly entranced, sexy as hell, and transported somewhere else to just drift along.

Website | Facebook | Instagram | Soundcloud | Spotify | Apple Music

Thundercat – It Is What It Is

“Your favorite musician’s favorite musician.”

“A virtuoso on his instrument.”

“A latent superstar.”

“The coolest bass player that ever walked the Earth.”

All of this in reference to Stephen Bruner (aka Thundercat), a self-described comic book and video game nerd who writes songs about his cat, traffics in complex, proggy mash-ups of cosmic funk, experimental jazz, and slow jam R&B, and who — with his new record It Is What It Is — has delivered an album remarkably in step with a world reeling in the face of a global pandemic and gnawing uncertainty.

Were the pandemic not to have happened, I don’t know that It Is What It Is would have registered in this way for me. I would still be writing about it for its musicality, sophistication, ideas, and sheer funkiness (more on this below). But, dig beneath the outrageous bass riffs and effortlessly smooth flow, and you hear an artist wrestling with serious stuff that feels really on point these days– loss, grief, inequity, uncertainty in facing the future, and, ultimately, some hard-earned acceptance of these as constants to be borne, not necessarily shed.

Like on Existential Dread, a trim 52 second interlude and one of a few tracks where he directly confronts a feeling that he acknowledges set in when his best friend Mac Miller died in 2018 of an accidental overdose.

Sometimes existential dread / Comes ringin' through loud and clear /
I'll adjust and simply let it go / I guess it is what it is / 
I'm not sure what's coming next / 
But, I'll be alright as long as I keep breathin'

Or, like on Miguel’s Happy Dance where he sings,

Do the fuckin' happy dance / Even when you're really fuckin' mad... / Even if you're really, really sad / You can probably be worse / 
Just have that sink in for a while

Or, like on standout single Black Qualls, where he and guests Steve Lacy, Steve Arrington, and Childish Gambino present a meditation on what it means to be a young, black American (particularly, a professionally and financially successful one):

There's nothing wrong if you got it / 
I'm not livin' in fear, I'm just bein' honest.../ 
If we don't talk about it, then who will?.../ 
I don't need your co-sign / 
'Cause I'm young enough and old enough, both at the same time.../
The box you tried to throw me in don't fit me no more, no 

Musically, this does not feel at all like a weighty record. In spite of the serious topics, it flows — sometimes, even sparkles — with a warm tone, hook-y melodies, and seamless production. The songs are complex, but accessible; driven by Thundercat’s incredible solo bass technique, but not dominated by it; and featuring plenty of his trademark humor, zaniness, and individuality. See another favorite track, Dragonball Durag, for perhaps the best combination of all of these elements.

Between the expected virtuosity and the multiple lyrically pitch-perfect moments for the chaos we face now, this is a record that strikes you right away AND gets better the more you sit with it. Thundercat said that this record is him “trying to figure it out.” What better time to do so with him?

Website | Facebook | Instagram | Soundcloud | Spotify | Apple Music