Terrace Martin, Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper, and 9th Wonder – Dinner Party

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.

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#10YearThrowback Thursdays (2010) – Gorillaz, Stylo (feat. Mos Def & Bobby Womack)

A new segment on In My Ear! On the occasional-to-maybe-regular Thursday, I’ll be digging into my archive and featuring tracks that were in my ear (and on my annual playlist) a decade ago. First up, the year was 2010…..

This remains one of my favorite Gorillaz tracks and near the top of any road trip playlist I’m libel to make. I mean, really. One of the best driving songs ever.

Stylo was the lead single off British virtual band Gorillaz third album Plastic Beach — and for me the real standout highlight of the record. The bass line is so pulsing and hooky and the guest turns from Mos Def and Bobby Womack are so tight; it all just hangs together really well.

This track introduced me to Bobby Womack, who I knew by name but not by his music or his catalogue. He absolutely crushes his verses and adds some soulful grit to the otherwise polished funk and electronic sound of the song.

This one feels dated to me…but just in my memory of it, not the sound itself. Gorillaz has always been (and remains) remarkably able to adapt their sound to stay current.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Some Things I Missed in 2019 (Part 2)

Given the overwhelming amount of content being put out into the world, I discover just as much new-to-me music from the past year as I do from the current year in the first quarter of any given year — normally culminating (except in 2020) with the glorious, chaotic, indie-artist fire hose that is SXSW. So, I hold off making my version of this particular list until about now; after the dust has settled a bit in Q1 and I’ve pulled out my own highlights from SXSW (even the festival that wasn’t this year), but before the traditional flood of spring/summer releases starts.

Preamble over. Part 1 was last week. Here is Part 2 of a list of a handful of artists who released new music in 2019 and didn’t make it onto my radar screen until this year, along with a full playlist of Parts 1 and 2.

Some Things I Missed in 2019 Playlist (Apple Music)

Some Things I Missed in 2019 Playlist (Spotify)

Kwesi

An Ohio-raised singer and songwriter of Ghanaian descent living in Los Angeles, Kwesi has a beautiful, distinctive voice (traces of John Legend) and a great talent for blending elements of soul, R&B, folk, pop, and electronic music into soulful, catchy, honest, searching songs. I’ve been following Kwesi (formerly Kwesi K) for years. He released two fantastic EPs in 2013 and 2014 (Pronouns and Lovely, respectively) and, since then, has written/produced songs with others and personally released a series of singles — including Neck Tattoo, which slipped by me last year but is a (typically, for Kwesi) beautifully wrought song with heart and humor in equal measure.

Lambert

Credit to NPR Music’s Tom Huizenga for this one. He featured Lambert and his 2019 record True in some year-end retrospective or another and I immediately sought out the album. It is magical. Lambert is a contemporary classical/classical crossover pianist and composer from Hamburg, Germany. He has a clear gift for melody and a seemingly effortless ability to construct modern melodic lines and rhythms on a classical piano framework. True is a spare record with more solo piano and trio work than orchestration, but the songs still manage to sound grand and, often, cinematic. I love the track Vienna; a mysterious-sounding song with a whiff of venom (absolutely perfect for a spy thriller soundtrack) that pairs Lambert’s deft, nimble piano playing with a hypnotic beat and scratchy percussive elements. It just sounds so fresh.

Lettuce

Man, Lettuce have been doin’ it for almost 30 years! Crazy. A funk band formed in the early 90s by Berklee College of Music undergrads, Lettuce has been holding it down since then with a potent and lasting blend of funk, soul, jazz, electronica, hip-hop beats, and jam band chops. Having personally seem them perform (mostly in their early years), they are a true force live and their musicianship is off the charts. They released Elevate in 2019, their seventh studio album, and are quickly following that with a new record Resonate, dropping this Friday, May 8. Elevate has a spacey vibe to it, including on their cover of one of my favorite songs, Tear for Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World.

Roy Kinsey

Anyone who follows me here or on Where the Music Meets knows I am a big, big Roy Kinsey fan. To learn more about Kinsey — for my money, one of the most interesting, innovative, authentic, and talented voices in hip-hop right now — start by checking out my two-part interview with him for WtMM from earlier this year and then dig into his two most recent records — Blackie (2018) and Kinsey: A Memoir (2020). Each of them are absolute fire….as is this single She/Her that Kinsey released in 2019 , spitting his trademark smart, bracing raps over a stripped-down looped piano riff and synth bass line.

Seratones

Coming loud and hard out of Shreveport, LA, Seratones offer a potent blend of rock, gritty soul, funk, and R&B that — similar to The Black Keys — sounds thoroughly modern, even as it draws straight from classic 1960s/1970s sounds. Frontwoman AJ Haynes seems borne from Stax Records’ stable of artists, even as she wails over modern synth arrangements. A band that I am desperate to see live, Seratones is totally addictive. 

Wiki

A new discovery for me, Wiki is straight NYC hip-hop. A grizzled veteran at the age of 26, Wiki (the stage name of Patrick Morales) fronted a famed NYC underground rap trip Ratking before moving on as a solo artist. His 2019 release Oofie is his second full-length solo record. Wiki sounds like a brash rapper and he is; quick-witted and quick-tongued, nimble with a verse and a confident boast. But, lyrically, this record strikes a rueful, disillusioned, often bitter tone. It’s a cutting, visceral critique of self and of his career in the churn of the music business. Still, Wiki’s talent and skill shines through the record’s sense of resignation, like on the excellent, woozy track Grim and also on Promises (featuring In My Ear favorite duendita).

Winnie Raeder

Another discovery for me and another vocalist who utterly transfixed me from the moment I heard her. UK singer-songwriter Winnie Raeder’s voice arcs and lilts and aches with grace and a burning intensity. She released her debut EP in 2019, From Here, as well as the gorgeous single She — one of the more touching, quietly brutal, and haunting songs of love lost that I’ve heard.

Now she says / All she wants is / All that I'm not 
Now she says / She don't need it / Or feel it enough /
It's not what she wants

Vampire Weekend

I’ll admit that I’ve totally slept on Vampire Weekend in recent years. I loved their first record and than mellowed on them a bit. I always appreciated how distinct their brand of indie pop sounded even as they absolutely blew up and I admired their musicianship and ideas. But, their ensuing records just never grabbed me. Not surprising, then, that their 2019 release Father of the Bride (their first without founding member and talented songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij) passed by me without much attention — until I heard the sweet lil’ song Stranger that brought me back to all that I like about this band. Undeniably catchy; sonically sunny, but lyrically/emotionally complex; genre-bending with those core Afro-pop influences; and just a really great, fun, unique sound.

Your Old Droog

Again, like with the Kaytranda record I featured in Part 1, Your Old Droog dropped his new record Jewelry in late December, so it’s been a feature for me more in early 2020 than the last weeks of 2019. Remarkably, Jewelry was Your Old Droog’s *third* release in 2019! Man put out three of his five full length-records last year alone! The Ukrainian American, Brooklyn born-and-raised rapper (the name “Droog” comes from a Ukrainian word meaning “friend”) has a voice and flow often compared (sometimes confused) with Nas. He’s also a frequent collaborator with, among others, the previously mentioned Wiki and underground rap royalty MF DOOM. A private artist (following in the footsteps of DOOM), Droog has said that Jewelry elevates and celebrates his Jewish heritage. Setting aside that interesting theme for the record, I’m just totally hooked on his flow and the flute loop on the first single from the album, BDE.

Some Things I Missed in 2019 (Part 1)

Given the overwhelming amount of content being put out into the world, I discover just as much new-to-me music from the past year as I do from the current year in the first quarter of any given year — normally culminating (except in 2020) with the glorious, chaotic, indie-artist fire hose that is SXSW. So, I hold off making my version of this particular list until about now; after the dust has settled a bit in Q1 and I’ve pulled out my own highlights from SXSW (even the festival that wasn’t this year), but before the traditional flood of spring/summer releases starts.

Preamble over. Here is Part 1 of a list of a handful of artists who released new music in 2019 and didn’t make it onto my radar screen until this year:

Abraham Alexander

Born in Greece to parents of Nigerian descent, Abraham Alexander moved to Texas with his family at age 11, determined to escape the racial tensions they faced in Athens. With a voice of similar tone, texture, and emotive weight of John Legend, Leslie Odom Jr., and fellow Texan Leon Bridges, Alexander’s personal biography is fertile ground for his rich blend of soul, blues, R&B, and folk. He released his self-titled debut EP last year in September 2019, which includes the gorgeous single Stay.

Amanda Palmer

I really was not familiar at all with the music and career of Amanda Palmer until I heard this 10+ minute epochal track. Known equally for her music and her Pateon-based, crowd-funded business model, The Ride song drew me with it’s simple piano melody and because it is visceral and raw and strong and delicate and bold and frightened — all at once. It feels so timely; a sense of utter resignation in the face of painful realities, but tinged with traces of the courage that will see us through to the other side. This is journalism, not editorial. Capturing what is for so many, offering no quarter but, equally, no excuses.

Audrey

Fresh and edgy and genre-defiant (on Apple Music alone, her singles are variously coded as electronic, R&B/soul, pop, and hip-hop/rap), Korean American artist Audrey released a fantastic set of singles in 2019 that flipped easily between gorgeous, soulful, effortlessly soaring vocals (on Paper) and quick-fire raps over warped beats (on Comic Sans). She is set to release a debut EP sometime this year and we can. not. wait.

Big Thief

Indie-folk/rock powerhouses Big Thief had a big 2019, releasing two albums five months apart: U.F.O.F in May and Two Hands in October. These are records that didn’t really land with me at the time, but that I expect to continually rediscover the rest of this year. The track Not is just one example of that: for all of the quietude of so much of Big Thief’s catalogue, it’s good to be reminded that they can rock really, really hard (wait for it at 3:22).

Cimafunk

Cimafunk is a Cuban singer, songwriter and producer who, on the 2019 single El Potaje track, features some legends Cuban music to sonically and physically together traditional Afro-Cuban roots music with the funk group’ s modern sound and pulsating groove. Put it all together, and your body can’t help but move and you can’t help but joyful and more free in the moment than you did before you hit play.

Conrad

What. A. Voice. The single Blue Blooded is a smart pop banger with flourishes that I tend to like: heavy, throbbing bass, mixed tempos with great swells and drops, and a clean melody line. But, really, there is magic in Conrad’s voice. Reminiscent to me of Panic! At the Disco’s Brendon Urie, Conrad instantly commands attention with his vocal strength, range, and the purity of his tone. You listen to this track primarily to hear that voice and experience what it does with each new verse and measure.

Denai Moore

A total discovery for me and another example of the incredible talent, innovation, and depth of the U.K. modern soul music scene. A British-Jamaican artist, Denai Moore mixes soul and R&B influences with folk and electronic elements in intentionally genre-bending/genre-breaking ways. To the Brink is her first new music in two years, ahead of a new album — her third — due out in July.

Dot Cromwell

A Philadelphia native, Dot Cromwell resides now in Brooklyn and makes music that makes you think. Makes you pay attention. It’s introspective, intelligent rap set over richly produced beats and lush synths. His easy flow — sometimes cutting and hard, sometimes laconic and woozy — is a clear trademark, as are the many influences (brooding trap beats; auto-tuned sing-song raps) running throughout his debut EP, Full of Sin, released last summer 2019.

Elizabeth Moen

Another voice that just slays me. But, unlike the above-mentioned Conrad’s straight-ahead power, Elizabeth Moen’s voice shape-shifts and amazes with its easy movement from hushed whisper, to smokey and sultry, to looping falsettos, and up to a snarling wail. Moen is an indie-rock/folk/alt-folk artist in the vein of Lake Street Dive and Margaret Glaspy, both groups that she’s toured with. There is also a lot of Brittany Howard/Alabama Shakes in her sound, especially in the single Headgear that pairs Moen’s vocals with crunchy guitars and a super-soulful groove. I can’t stop listening to this track.

Kaytranda

To be fair to myself, super-producer Kaytranda’s latest record Bubba came out in mid-December, 2019 and so it was easy to “miss” last year. Chock-a-block full of guest appearances (including from In My Ear favorites SiR, Mick Jenkins, and Masego), there are beats and vibes and joints for days on this record. So many good sounds, but the earworm award for me goes to 10%, featuring another In My Ear favorite Kali Uchis.

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?

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Lianne La Havas – Bittersweet

Looking for a proverbial port in the storm that is swirling around us all right now? Look no further than Lianne La Havas’s smooth new single Bittersweet. The topic isn’t particularly cheery (personal renewal and a fresh start after a failing relationship) but the vibe is relaxed, the beat is steady, and La Havas’s trademark vocals soar. It is a song to get lost in, which feels like a particular blessing at this moment in time.

As a big, big fan of La Havas, what is more exciting perhaps than her dropping this single is the promise of a new album sometime this year, her first since she released her sophomore record Blood in 2015. That album remains in heavy rotation for me. And, having seen her tour on that record (fun fact: the cover image on In My Ear’s Facebook page is from that show!), I hope a new album also means a new tour because La Havas is one of the best, most natural live performers I’ve seen.

For now, I am more than happy to ride out to this excellent track.

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