Robert Glasper Experiment: Black Radio 2
When I first got into jazz, I bristled at anyone who would dare suggest that the genre I was just discovering was in any way “dead.” After all, there remains a large worldwide following for the music and an at least seemingly strong repertoire of artists, so what’s the problem? Now, though, I might be coming around to something like a theory of the “death of jazz.” Listening to albums from Robert Glasper, Nicholas Payton, and Christian Scott, among others, one notices that though their contributions to jazz (Payton prefers “black American music” or BAM) retain some of the forms of that venerable genre, their success comes from its combination with something new. And I don’t mean that they’re merely being eclectic, creating little postmodern jokes of songs by smashing two genres together–that, if done playfully, can work, but it’s rarely satisfying. I mean that their compositions integrate various streams of music in an almost seamless fashion. One element might be more noticeable than another, but there is less striking contrast and more holistic unity. With Glasper, in particular, the historical aspect of his last two projects has relativized the importance of jazz, “demoting” or reassigning it as just another strand in a vast panoply of African American musical expressions.
Last year, Glasper, an accomplished pianist signed to Blue Note, put out Black Radio, an album that acted as a colorful and musically excellent index of black pop music, from jazz to R&B to rap. Numerous guest stars, including Bilal, Lupe Fiasco, and Erykah Badu brought their best to the album, making it one of the best albums of last year. Now, with Glasper once again at the helm and another star-studded cast of guest musicians coming along, Black Radio 2 sticks to the same formula as its predecessor. With more of an emphasis on R&B than the first record, and Glasper’s gorgeous piano runs sidelined, there is a sense that something has been lost in the transition. Despite that minor complaint, however, this is still both an excellent collection of music and a touching love letter to black music history.
Where the first album focused on creative rewordings of classic songs, Black Radio 2 has only one, a cover of “Jesus Children” by Stevie Wonder. Until that final track, however, the album is solely original compositions by Glasper and his collaborators, with the former also serving as producer. Songs tend to keep to a slow burn, quietly building momentum. After a long intro theme which sets the tone of the album, it transitions into the rousing “I Stand Alone,” featuring both a verse from Chicago rapper Common and a manifesto for the album. Read by Michael Eric Dyson, a sociology professor at Georgetown, it reads, in part, “Thank God we’ve still got musicians and thinkers whose obsession with excellence and whose hunger for greatness remind us that we should all be unsatisfied with mimicking the popular, rather than mining the fertile veins of creativity that God placed deep inside each of us.”
After this, the record settles into a deep and satisfying groove, emphasizing love songs and a sense of warm melancholy throughout. Each of the tracks after “I Stand Alone” highlights the talent of a jazz or R&B singer. So “Calls” features poet and vocalist Jill Scott in one of the more optimistic numbers. “Trust” finds upcoming star Marsha Ambrosius, singing her passionate alto over a bed of snappy programmed beats and slow piano progressions set down by Glasper. Both that song and the Norah Jones-featuring “Let It Ride” run over seven minutes, plenty of time to let their thick atmospheres settle over the listener. The result is cool rather than chilling and taut rather than slack because the songs develop in clear and direct ways even when they run for several minutes.
A track that breaks this pattern is “Persevere,” which features the return of Lupe Fiasco and a surprisingly lucid-sounding Snoop Dogg, who gives his guest verse more effort than anything I’ve heard him do in some time now. Still laid back and bathed in an aura of devil-may-care cool, he nails his rap with his typical suavity. As usual, Lupe Fiasco is armed and ready, injecting a more active and even militant take on the theme. The entire track is built around a strong hook delivered by Luke James, and paves the way for the end of the record.
The entire album, like the first, emerged from a sense among the artists and writers involved that popular music’s brightest lights have gone unappreciated. Considering the formidable alliance of collaborators on display here, I think the gauntlet has been thrown down. Recalling the past but also forward-looking in its execution and the way it plays different genres off of each other while recognizing their historical continuity, Black Radio 2 is a worthy sequel to the first.