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.
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.
“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?
Free Nationals released this track today and, um….there was no way I was going to post about anything else. Free Nationals (Anderson .Paak’s backing band and one of the best live soul/funk/R&B groups on the planet right now) + Kali Uchis (my top “I’m-not-a-huge-fan-of-pop-radio-R&B-but-I-love-her” female vocalist) + Mac Miller (his first posthumous release) = Awesomeness.
Even if it sounded bad I was going to tune into this track. But, of course, it sounds fantastic. Melodically tight out of the gate, with Kali Uchis singing the chorus backed by a strummed acoustic guitar, and then picking up 30 seconds in with a Free Nationals / Kelsey Gonzalez classic, butter-smooth, on-the-one bass line.
That bass groove drives the song forward, accented by glittering synth, electric guitar, and trumpet riffs and graced at the top with Uchis’s layered, slightly ethereal vocals. It cruises along at a steady, head-nodding clip…and then Mac Miller tucks in with his verse.
Man, I miss Mac Miller. I was oddly affected by his passing (which I wrote about last September) and so I feel conflicted hearing his familiar, distinctively raspy voice again. Happy to be vibing along to his vocals and amazing flow again, even as I know he’s no longer here and I’m listening to a single moment frozen in time. He raps:
“Look at me watering seeds, it’s time to grow / I get out of control when I’m alone”
I found myself wondering how it must be for his family and close friends; the courage it must take them to allow Free Nationals to release this song with the subject matter of letting go of love, which is guaranteed to feel haunting and sad for them even as it is likely what he would have wanted and keeps his memory and legacy alive for the rest of us. Respect.
After another chorus and verse by Kali Uchis, the track shifts keys and winds down with horns and a warped fade. Front-to-back, this track is just one smooth, effortless, R&B groove. You don’t so much listen as you sink into it.
Although In My Ear’s concept and design is centered around songs (a new one posted each week-ish to inspire, not overwhelm; share and celebrate, not rush to debut or announce), I personally applaud “the album.” That species of music-making endangered by click-rates and selective streaming and competition for the public’s precious little attention. Am I guilty of cherry-picking songs instead of demanding — as a consumer and music appreciator — cohesive albums? Yes.
But, not today. Today, I honor a true album. A comprehensive, sweeping musical expression that is made up of great, individual songs, but that truly moves the audience and delivers when listened to as a whole. A sum that is greater than its parts.
Ali Shaheed Muhammad (of A Tribe Called Quest) and Adrian Younge (musician, composer, arranger, and producer) are two of the most respected composers in hip hop. After years of time-limited, one-off collaborations, they formed The Midnight Hour this year and released their self-titled debut album The Midnight Hour in June.
The Midnight Hour is Black excellence: an ode to the cultural sophistication that the Harlem Renaissance established for its people.
~The Midnight Hour artist page, Bandcamp
Questions was the lead single off the record and it remains my favorite track. Mostly because I had already heard it and loved it two years ago when Kendrick Lamar sampled an unfinished demo version of the song on his 2016 album untitled unmastered.as the track untitled 06 | 06.30.2014.
Vibe on this song, sure, but do yourself a favor and take the time/create the space to sit with the entire Midnight Hour record. Younge has a deft touch on the keys; Shaheed Muhammed is (unbeknownst to me) a killer bassist; and their composer/arranger chops, as well as their chemistry, just make the album a remarkable listen. Orchestral and cinematic, while still feeling intimate, it combines jazz and jazz fusion, soul, and hip hop into a sumptuous 20-track set — recalling smokey clubs and your parents’/grandparents’/favorite uncle’s jazz and soul records spinning on a beloved turntable.
Masego is a a new discovery for me and this is a really fresh track as his debut full-length album Lady Lady drops today. The same-titled single was one of the record’s pre-releases and it stopped me cold on my first listen.
Masego is a chameleon. A Jamaica-born, Virginia-raised, self-taught saxophonist, pianist, singer, and producer work across musical genres and blending music, fashion, and visual arts. Dude’s got style and swagger for days. And, the musicianship to back it all up.
He coined a phrase “traphousejazz” to describe his own music. For sure the jazz part of that, but I hear as much/more classic soul, 80s’ vintage pop R&B, and 90s’ era Tribe Called Quest hip-hop. I mean, the album cover — with the cursive font and crushed velvet curtains alone — pays direct homage to Michael Jackson and Prince.
I was also struck by the way this track channels Fela Kuti’s Lady. Not so much of the AfroFunk musical style; Masego is smoother and less gritty. But, the songs feel similar in their titles, themes, lyrics, syncopation, and saxophones.
Quick aside: If you didn’t see or haven’t yet checked out the WtMM interview, the time to get on that shit is NOW! Kidding (sort of).
In all seriousness, it’s a cool read. Henry was really thoughtful and candid. We covered ground about his musical background and influences; his journey with this new record; the lightbulb moment smoking weed and listening to old-school rap as a teenager in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park when he thought, “I can do this.”; the respect, intention, and awareness he carries of being a white artist in a black art form; and his bottom-line love of rap music.
I’ve previously written admiringly about Henry’s flow, his voice and vocals, the tight production that backs his records, and his bringing together of jazz, East Coast ciphers, and West Coast R&B/funk vibes.
But, listening to Not Today (as I have been repeatedly since the record dropped in mid-April), I am always struck most by the lyrics. Listening deeply and digging into the dope rhymes and clever wordplay, the words he’s saying are authentic, real, vulnerable, and redeeming. I connect with them on such a visceral level — with things going on in my own life, thoughts in my own head, and emotions/feeling of my own heart.
It’s a god-damn empowering song. A universal call-to-action against the inner-demons we all face — self-doubt, fear, worry, anger — and a shout into that void, calling on our better natures.
Read the interview. Check out the full Cool Side album. And, for sure, rock this track when you need a lift and some steel in your spine. I’m tellin’ you….