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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Mahalia – Hide Out

I’m spending the next couple of posts catching up on some September releases that I’ve been spending time with. Mahalia‘s debut album Love and Compromise is at the top of the list and, in particular, the lead track Hide Out — a song swollen with swagger, defiance, and self-determination.

Mahalia’s story is worth reading up on. Signed to Atlantic at just 13, she’s steadily released stand-alone singles and a few EPs while continuing her studies (and, you know, being a teenager). Now, at the ripe-in-her-career-but-still-young age of 21, she’s released a robust, polished, dynamic pop R&B record chock full of killer songs.

The tracks are sonically and musically diverse; there’s dancehall beats, jazzy riffs, dead-on-style classic 90s R&B joints, neo-soul melodies, and on. But, in a testament to the intelligence of the record’s production, the power of Mahalia’s soulful vocals, and the firm grip she has on her own personal sound, the songs sound cohesive as an album. There’s no sense of over-reach here.

That’s evident from the first moment of the first song, Hide Out, which starts with a defiant quote from Eartha Kitt pulled from an amazing and inspiring interview segment of the 1982 documentary “All by Myself: The Eartha Kitt Story”). The track swells quickly on the hum of a backing gospel choir and then thrums to life with a beat drop at :24, all before Mahalia clocks in with rich, sultry vocals that take to task the poor soul stepping out on her.

The lyrics and music are fierce. A straight ahead pounding drum-kick-snare beat drives a relentless momentum, while Mahalia’s relatively flat delivery and frank lyrics lace the track with a cool, collected anger. While the song’s subject is a cheating partner, the true meaning and discovery here self-reliance and self-love. Hide Out will add steel to your spine, grit to your teeth, and a determined half-step to your gait as you walk — eyes up, ready to take on all comers. I have yet to feel anything but awesome listening to it.

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Black Pumas – Black Moon Rising

My new favorite band. Your new favorite band. Black Pumas is the stuff of legend. Grammy-award producer meets talented street busker; they hang; make some music; magic happens; and – bam – they’re catch fire and you can’t get their shit out of your brain. Which is fantastic because they are legit and awesome.

Black Moon Rising, the lead single off their debut self-titled album released a couple of weeks ago, is just one of a host of golden tracks.

As other commenters have noted, Black Pumas doesn’t stay in the retro-soul box you want to put them in on first listen. The record spills over the side with modern production flashes, drum loops, and fresh-sounding guitar and keyboard licks. While they command their own unique sound that merges classic soul, gritty rock, and vintage-era funk, there are hints of current influences from Dan Auerbach, to Danger Mouse, and even Khruangbin.

Black Pumas is having a moment. And, we’re all better for it.

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Free Nationals (feat. Mac Miller and Kali Uchis) – Time

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”

Damn, Mac.

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.

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Some Things I Missed in 2018 (Part 1)

We just passed the quarter pole of 2019 and, as the music world gears up for the spring/summer release cycle and tour season, I’m looking backward.

2018, you say? Whaaaa? That was so. long. ago!

Yeah, but see….it kind of wasn’t. And, 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 — culminating with the glorious, chaotic, indie-artist firehose 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 SXSW highlights.

Preamble over. Here is Part 1 of a list of a handful of artists who released new music in 2018 and didn’t make it onto my radar screen until this year:

Abhi The Nomad

While my attention was focused on Naji’s new record at the end of 2018 (deservedly, IMO), I missed the effort of this fellow trafficker in electronic-forward R&B. Abhi The Nomad’s full-length debut record Marbled is more pop-polished, but there is a similar use of warped beats, sonic playfulness, and tight production. This is one of those albums where the music (bright, often bouncy, with an overall pop sheen) belies some heavy themes and lyrics. There are a lot of layers here.

Benny the Butcher

An MC from Buffalo who has been lighting up guest tracks, collaboration records, and a handful of his own singles/EPs since 2016, Benny the Butcher dropped a monster album Tana Talk 3 in late November 2018. Benny is a clear descendent of the East Coast street rap tradition; gritty, sharp, sometimes dark/bleak beats tamed by raw, direct raps chronicling (not glorifying) his inner-city come up. Tana Talk 3 is a statement record; there is such flexing power to it.

Elisapie

Full credit to NPR’s All Songs Considered crew for turning me onto Elisapie during their build-up to and coverage of SXSW. I was completely new to her as an artist (especially as one who is not deeply rooted in the folk music scene) and as an activist. The depth of purpose and of personal power in Elisapie’s music is palpable and her 2018 release The Ballad of the Runaway Girl — her fourth solo album — is as vast and sweeping in its vision and musical influences as it is a deeply personal exploration of her own identity and representation of her Inuit heritage.

Flohio

What is going on in London, man?! That city is doing R&B/soul better than most of the U.S. right now and it’s coming for rap too. Y’all know how gaga I am over Little Simz; well, here comes Flohio, another fiery, hyper-talented, London-based female MC is who is not playing. She released an EP and a handful of singles in 2018, including Watchout where she sends shots across the bow of any doubters and even flips moments of vulnerability to go harder, “I’ve been struggling to be myself/So why the fuck would I wanna be anybody else.”

Ivy Sole

Quoting from a write-up I did for Where the Music Meets, “Blend mainstream R&B, the 90s- and 2000s-era Brand Nubian-style hip-hop, a rich voice reminiscent of Indie.Arie, and sonic traces of both the Philly sound where she lives now and the gospel and soul afforded by her upbringing in Charlotte, NC, and you get a sense for Ivy Sole’s warm soundscape and easy flow. She released her first EP three years ago at age 22 and has been building her sound, her following, and her chops to her full-length studio album release, Overgrown, which dropped in September 2018.”


Liniker e os Caramelows — Calmô

The 2019 music year is still a bit slow ramping up. Or maybe that’s just me. In any event, as new releases start to dribble out, I’m still vibing to music that I was listening to at the end of 2018. Calmô continues to be in heavy rotation from the In My Ear 2018 Playlist.I am way late to the Liniker e os Caramelows party and to this track as well, which was released as a single in early fall 2018. But, who cares man, because I am glad to be here now. Full credit to NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Series for introducing me to this band; they played a fantastic Tiny Desk in late October 2018.

I don’t know enough about the group to do a just profile of them, but their story is a remarkable one: a richly diverse collective from Araraquara in the interior of São Paulo state fronted by talented and vibrant singer/songwriter Liniker Barros — a Black, trans singer and outspoken advocate for LGBTQ+ rights hailing from a country in Brazil that has some of the highest rates of homophobia and LGBTQ+ violence.

Barros speaks about their lyrics and the band’s entire ethos as being all about love. And, so it is with this track because Calmô, is just….warm. A beautiful, aching, sultry slow song that feels like a late summer day, a soft breeze against your cheek, or a lover’s hot, whispered breath on your ear. I love, love, love 70’s vintage Brazilian soul and funk music and this track includes so many of those intoxicating elements: deeply soulful emotion, jazz and Caribbean and Afro-Brazilian influences, an unhurried tempo, and an irresistible sway.

Sighhhhhh, drink this song in.

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Feature Image by Leila Penteado

Lamont Landers – Easy

Ain’t no reason to complicate this post by setting up how I heard this track or describing its’ elements or explaining why it hit me. All you need to know is that Lamont Landers’ new single Easy is just a pure sip of sunshine.

Lamont Landers is a young band. While their sounds are very different, there are comparisons to be made with St. Paul & the Broken Bones. Origins in Alabama; blue-eyed soul, self-taught front man reared on classic soul music. And, like the Broken Bones, Lamont Landers will have to work to keep their sound fresh or risk making records that sound the same and music that gets too easily labeled.

But, no need to think on all that right now. Easy is soulful, funky pop deliciousness of the sort that will always, always be in my wheelhouse. A tight melody, funky slap-bass line, a little chicken-scratch electric guitar. Yessssss…….

The Midnight Hour – Questions (feat. CeeLo Green)

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 Tribe Called Quest) & Adrian Younge The Midnight Hour

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.