America’s Child – Shemekia Copeland

shemTitle: America’s Child

Artist: Shemekia Copeland

Label: Alligator

Formats: CD, Digital

Release Date: August 3, 2018

 

Since her Outskirts of Love release, “Queen of the Blues” Shemekia Copeland has been striving for a deeper representation of Americana blues. With her newest offering, she has done just that. Combining elements of rock, soul and country, America’s Child is Copeland’s most diverse and compelling work yet. Continue reading

The Suffers – Everything Here

suffers

 

Title: Everything Here

Artist: The Suffers

Label: Shanachie

Format: CD, LP, Digital

Release Date: July 13, 2018

 

The Suffers are a multi-faceted, musically diverse group hailing from the Gulf Coast, and just in case there’s any doubt, the first track, “Intro (A Headnod to Houston)” sets us on the right path. Their musical style, however, is less straight-forward. Soul? Jazz? Neo-blues? Retro R&B? The group, comprised of eight highly-talented individuals from multiple artistic backgrounds, can be classed as all of these and more. As lead vocalist Kam Franklin states, “We make music for all people.” Houston marks the album in more ways than one, as area rappers Paul Wall and Bun B. cameo on more than one track, and many songs express love for the city and its inhabitants. The Suffers exploded onto the scene in 2015 and 2016 with their EP Make Some Room and their self-titled debut album, and their newest offering, Everything Here, is a fitting follow-up.

The short album introduction leads into the first full-length track, “I Think I Love You.” The song has a rocking rhythm that quickly captures your mind, encouraging you to sit back, relax and let the music take control. The melody line is simple and repetitive, and exactly what you didn’t know you needed, with the beautiful lullabying of Franklin’s crooning settling your soul. Bun B’s cameo in “Bernard’s Interlude (feat. Bun B.) has a mellow, Barry White-esque tone, furthering the mood of relaxation and contemplation. Further down the list, “You Only Call” shines a spotlight on the sporadic moments every relationship—familial, personal or otherwise—can suffer in its quest to work out. “Sure to Remain” completes relational upsides as well, dealing us another round of sweet melody nestled down in a funky, electro-piano and percussion feather bed.

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In keeping with their inclusive promise, the group also offers up-tempo melodies. The title-track, “Everything Here,” is a sweet-spot mixture of all the group has to give, including Franklin’s disclosure that “Everything here, everything here/ reminds me of you.” The track “All I Want To Do” showcases Franklin’s expert songwriting abilities in the band’s jazz instrumentals and her own melodic virtuosity. “Do Whatever” cements the Suffers as message deliverers of rounded choice and acceptance, while the closing track, “Won’t Be Here Tomorrow,” urges us to appreciate the now, as things can change at the blink of an eye and the drop of an instrument.

Everything Here’s bold statements about life, love and home in tandem with their interdisciplinary musical style do indeed uphold the album’s declaration. The Suffers have everything in our musical world to offer to all in their artistic world willing to listen.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Nsimbi – Nsimbi

Nsimbi
Title: Nsimbi

Artist: Nsimbi

Label: Imara

Format: CD, Digital

Release Date: June 22, 2018

 

 

American-Ugandan power duo Nsimbi offer their debut onto the world stage with their self-titled album, Nsimbi. Hip-hop MC Zamba and American song-writer Miriam Tamar comprise this duo they describe as originating from ancient African insight in the form of Swahili proverbs. As Zamba explains, every song is based on a thread of those adages connected through the theme of human oneness and sociality. These networks, Tamar details, are then woven sonically via instruments from kalimba to kora into tight grooves that convey the message of hope and humanity.

Nsimbi has diverse origins but the tracks share a sonic integrity, a sunny acoustic sound and a rhythmic intensity. In music video for the first track, “Dunia Ni Matembezi,” we journey through the wondrous eyes of a schoolboy as he embarks on a trip through the desert after reading his favorite afro-future comic book, “Dunia.” He’s joined by a merry band of pranksters and vagabonds, who teach him about discovering the world through the five senses, a universal language that we all share. As the boy comes into contact with exotic landscapes and develops his perception of sight and sound, he finds connection and community with those around him. In this retro-future video, time is at a standstill, forever present, and travel is a state of mind.

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All of the contributor’s various styles glimmer throughout the album. Tamar’s singer-songwriter instincts lay the groundwork for “Gonna Be Alright,” Zamba’s hip hop roots offer age-old griot wisdom on “Flower of the Heart,” US-based Ugandan multi-instrumentalist Kinobe offers his expressive kora on the refugee-themed “Forsaken,” and Congolese-born soukous guitarist and singer Jaja Bashengenzi imprints his own style on multiple tracks overall.

The day used to end the same way around the world. After the work was done, families and communities would gather around a fire, where they would sing, dance, tell stories, and distill learning into proverbs. Thanks to Nsimbi, we are able to capture that magic of long-ago and instill it into our modern existence. With Nsimbi, the fire that brought us all together burns eternally.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

 

 

Jonestown – Winston Jarrett and The Righteous Flames

Jonestown

Title: Jonestown

Artist: Winston Jarrett and The Righteous Flames

Label: Omnivore

Format: CD, Digital

Release Date: August 3, 2018

 

Classic Reggae can never truly fall under into “out of sight, out of mind” category, but just in case we need a refresher, Omnivore Records has reissued one of the best offerings, Jonestown. Originally released by Nighthawk Records, Jonestown is the work of prolific reggae artists Winston Jarrett and Eggar Gordon (Baby Gee). Obtaining their start in 1965 from locally famous Kingston vocalist Alton Ellis, Winston and Gordon released multiple recordings, were featured on Coxsone Studio One’s many artistic endeavors, and recorded for other producers such as Duke Reid, Lee Perry and Joe Gibbs.

Jarrett’s transition to Nighthawk Records began in 1983 upon meeting the label’s producer Leroy Jody Pierson, who was working on a mix of Justin Hinds’ Travel With Love album. Together with Gordon, who was still performing in the area, Jarrett recorded Jonestown. After nearly 30 years, the album is being reissued along with new liner notes from Pierson and featuring previously unseen photos. Each song is a testament to the combined talents emanating from Jarrett and Gordon, with songs such as the smooth “Hold On To This Feeling” and the regional shout-out “Jonestown” testifying to the unique collaborative relationship dedicated to their quality art.

True legends never disappear, but rather they remain imbedded in our hearts forever. With its lyrical methodology and its definitive rhythmic soundscape, Jonestown lovingly reignites our passion for the reggae genre while simultaneously redistributing the sunshine and peace Jarrett and Gordon’s artistic oneness originally bestowed upon us.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

 

 

Love Unlimited Orchestra – 20th Century Singles (1973-1979)

Love Unlimited Orchestra
Title: 20th Century Singles (1973- 1979)

Artist: Love Unlimited Orchestra

Label: Mercury/20th Century

Formats: CD, LP

Release Date: June 15, 2018

 

 

There’s something about luscious string instruments that bring out the best that music has to offer. Know thy history. When the Drifters shifted from Clyde McPhatter to Ben E. King, they ushered in a new sound with string instruments. The Sound of Philadelphia was also string heavy with the help of the Salsoul Orchestra. When Barry White made his debut, some thought, “Who is this Isaac Hayes sound alike?” Ah, not so fast to judge.  Radio jocks used to refer to White as ‘the maestro.’ What’s a maestro? A master in art. A composer, conductor or music teacher.

Barry White was indeed all that and beyond. After he unveiled his female trio, Love Unlimited, he was the brains behind a forty piece orchestra called, what else, the Love Unlimited Orchestra. Besides backing up White and his trio, other famous artists got their breaks from LUO including Kenny G, Lee Ritenour, Wah Wah Watson, and Ray Parker Jr.

Now, 20th Century Records has just released a two disc “best of” compilation from LUO, spanning the years 1973 to 1979.

Disc one opens up with “Love’s Theme.” Why not! It was their biggest hit and put them on the map. Barry White’s fingers are all over just about every single. “Rhapsody in White” starts off like “Love’s Theme” but then fools you—it’s way more upbeat. “Barry’s Theme,” named after guess who, is LUO paying homage to the maestro. White appears vocally on “Baby Blues,” giving us that often imitated delivery.

Disc two gets into disco. “Brazilian Love Song” makes one want to do the hustle. Speaking of Isaac Hayes, LUO also covers the “Theme from Shaft,” but their version is a little more up tempo, and Barry White has no cameo like Hayes on the original.

Love Unlimited Orchestra’s 20th Century Singles (1973 -1979) is for the lover. It’s close your eyes and relax music. However you choose to listen, it’s great to see LUO’s work get more attention.

Reviewed by Eddie Bowman

 

Bettye Lavette – Things Have Changed

Bette Lavette
Title: Things Have Changed

Artist: Bettye Lavette

Label: Verve

Formats: CD, Digital, Vinyl

Release date: March 30, 2018

 

 

The Times, They are a ’Changin’. This phrase, with all its historic relevancy, has once again become the most accurate description of contemporary times all over the globe. Therefore, it stands as no surprise a 60’s soul legend such as Bette Lavette would release a cover album focusing on ironic political artist Bob Dylan. Things Have Changed is a fitting tribute to some of Dylan’s most prolific movement songs in addition to showcasing other soul rock classics, with Lavette weaving in her own gritty stylings and adding a contemporary layer to the timeless classics.

The title track, Things Have Changed, serves as a warning for those who feel overwhelmed and anxious about their world: “Any minute now I’m expecting all hell to break loose/People are crazy and times are strange/I’m locked in tight/I’m out of range/I used to care, but things have changed. “Political World”, with its echoing of past conflicts and shouts of current trajectories, features Keith Richards, who layers his talents behind Lavette.

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Additional tracks pay homage to some of Dylan’s more introspective musings, with selections such as “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “Mama, You’ve been on My Mind.” But it’s on “Emotionally Yours” that Lavette’s ability to tug at the heartstrings becomes most evident. Through a combination of Dylan’s lyrics and her own amazingly soulful abilities, Lavette gives her listeners a thought-provoking look into the mind of a tortured soul yearning for that one last chance: “Come baby, find me, come baby, remind me of where I once begun/Come baby, show me, show me you know me, tell me you’re the one/I could be learning, you could be yearning to see behind closed door/But I will always be emotionally yours.”

Things Have Changed offers us the best of both worlds—Bob Dylan’s ageless classics and Bettye Lavette’s endless soul stylings—proving to us that even though time marches on, some things remain eternal and relevant, no matter what.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Shuggie Otis – Inter-Fusion

Shuggie Otis
Title: Inter-Fusion

Artist: Shuggie Otis

Label: Cleopatra

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

Release Date: April 20, 2018

 

 

Known best for his soulful songwriting and tender serenades as heard on hits such as “Strawberry Letter 23” and “Inspiration Information,” Shuggie Otis, “heir to Hendrix,” has long been held as one of the most innovative guitarists to ever pick up the 6-strings. A prodigy from early age, Otis regularly performed on stage and in the studio alongside his legendary father, bluesman Johnny Otis. Shuggie’s latest project, an adventurous new fusion rock project called Inter-fusion, showcases just how mind-blowing he is on the pearly frets of his gorgeous maroon Gibson SG.

The album consists of mostly instrumental tracks that groove and weave, taking unexpected turns in surprising directions, but all anchored by one of the finest rhythm sections imaginable. Drummer Carmine Appice (of Vanilla Fudge/Beck, Bogert & Appice) and bass player Tony Franklin (of The Firm/Roy Harper) both layer their expertise beyond Otis. In addition, keyboardist Kyle Hamood (of L.A. rockers Them Guns) steps in as both a musician and producer, delivering outright superlative performances from each artist involved.

The opening track, “Aphelion,” is a sweetly smooth shot of melancholy that goes down without a hitch. “Woman,” an uptempo beat complete with intricate melodies and layered percussion, begs to be played over and again, and “Clear Power” is a clean, crisp polyrhythmic groove that satisfies the aural need for virtuosity.

Uniting some of the best rock fusion artists on one recording, Inter-fusion reminds us that when it comes to Shuggie Otis, some of the most eclectic, quality art and artists have been right beside us all along.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Royce da 5’9″ – Book of Ryan

royce

 

Title: Book of Ryan

Artist: Royce da 5’9”

Label: Heaven Studios/eOne

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

Release Date: May 4, 2018

 

Royce da 5’9”, while best known for his collaborations with artists such as Eminem in addition to his extensive recording career, is still an enigmatic figure to many of his fans. While other artists have freely woven their personal issues into their rhymes, until this point Royce has relied on his lyricism skills to build his reputation and fan base. With Book of Ryan, however, he switches up his game plan and allows us a glimpse into his personal world. Functioning as a part-retrospective/part-progressive look at the Royce-That-Was and the Royce-That-Has-Yet-To-Be, Book of Ryan unflinchingly spins a narrative of past drug use, current insecurities and future self-expectations.

The 21-set album begins with an introduction in which Royce lays out his intentions for his music in narrative-style, and quickly gets right down to business in his second cut, “Woke.” The minimalistic, polyrhythmic percussion is appealing in its own right, but the lyrics calling out those in self-denial of their behavior and environment is spot-on conscious mode. “My Parallel,” the first of three self-explanatory ‘skits,’ further explores Royce’s purpose for the remainder of the album, disclosing that his dark childhood and subsequent drug use drove many of his self-destructive decisions.

While Royce doesn’t dwell in his past for the entire time, the main focus of his album is to let us into his inner world and former experiences. His choice of featured artists lets his fan base know who is important in his life—Eminem, T-Pain, and Pusha T, to name a few. “Amazing,” featuring Melanie Rutherford, is a multi-functional finger-point towards the grocer in Royce’s childhood who took away his coveted basketball, while also introducing fans to his past self through a self-affirmational journey through his old neighborhood.

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Royce continues his backward glance with “Boblo Boat,” an offering best experienced through video (above) due to its nostalgic youthful feeling and amusement park scenes. But it’s his skit, “Who are You,” that offers the best proof of why Ryan has released this deeply introspective album. This narrative features Royce describing a dream in which he is able to ask his late father hard-hitting questions he never got the chance to ask, followed by Royce’s son asking if he can interview him for a school project he has decided to do about his father called “The Book of Ryan.”

The Book of Ryan is a well-crafted piece of audible prose. Looking inward and outward at both society and himself, Royce da 5’9” gives us a page-turning look at all the forces that molded and shaped him into the artist he is now and the individual he aspires to be.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Deva Mahal – Run Deep

mahal

 

Title: Run Deep

Artist: Deva Mahal

Label: Motéma Music 

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

Release Date: March 23, 2018

 

Robust talent runs generationally, especially when you’re the offspring of blues icon Taj Mahal and dancer/artist Inshirah Mahal, as proven with Deva Mahal’s debut album, Run Deep. Forging her own sound as part blues, part indie-rock and all soul, Mahal gives her listeners one of the edgiest, most emotionally drawn voices in the industry today.

The first track, “Can’t Call it Love,” opens with a riveting guitar riff and empowering lyrics: I’m feeling new like an old-school instrumental / I’m getting in the mood / And feeling sentimental, which can be taken as both commentary on one’s new found infatuation and Mahal’s coming into her own. The entire album features innovative instrumentality and Mahal’s varied vocalization styles. For example, the closing track, “Take a Giant Step,” showcases her sultry pop sound as she reinterprets this standard by Carole King and Gerry Goffin (a song her father has also recorded).

The focal track of the album, both vocally and visually, is the offering “Snakes.” Mahal’s vocals jump right off the album from the first moment she begins singing, but the visualizations of the video are pure genius—black and white coloring, shadow dancing and the animation of a swamp monster, said to have been inspired by her favorite childhood “girl power” book, Liza Lou and the Yeller Belly Swamp by Mercer Mayer.

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Mahal has definitely come out from under her parent’s shadow with this artistic debut. From the first note to the last few strains, this artist’s soulful and funky melodies will have you running deep into the magical world of Deva Mahal, breathlessly awaiting her next move.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Starchild & the New Romantic – Language

starchild

 

Title: Language

Artist: Starchild & the New Romantic

Label: Motor Mouth Media

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

Release Date: February 23, 2018

 

After years of providing artists such as Solange and Dev Hynes (aka Blood Orange) with quality choreography and guitar riffs, Bryndon Cook has stepped out on his own under the moniker Starchild & the New Romantic with his debut album, Language. This 14-track offering takes its listeners on a ‘90s-inspired groove cruise, guided by what he calls is his self-made motto, “my sensitivity is my strength.”

Hailing from Maryland, Cook has always been a student of black music’s rich lineages that intersect with pop. Challenging binaries of old/new, religious/secular, and black/white, his music is both bold and mercurial, defining perspective and identity while calling for action. The title track weaves out of the speakers and around the mind with Cook crooning the language of lost chances and second glances. The short and tender single, “Hangin’ On,” echoes early-80s Prince in both instrumental sound and its resulting mood:  Fell asleep last night / Thinking about you. Saw you in my sleep, chased you till morning came. My mama said “follow your dreams” / Well I guess you were my warning / Now I’ve let myself go / Hope you’re still holdin’ on.

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Other tracks, such as “Black Diamond,” “Doubts” and “Boys Choir” speak to the root of the record itself—a mystical contemplation of the boyhood community to which Cook finally feels he is ready to bare his soul. Lyrical and emotional, poignant with just a smidge of regret, Language writes on the heart all that Cook was, is and will always be—a star in his own right, romanticizing his way into the minds of all who pause to listen.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Murs – A Strange Journey Into the Unimaginable

murs

 

Title: A Strange Journey Into the Unimaginable

Artist: Murs

Label: Strange Music

Formats: CD, Digital

Release Date: March 16, 2018

 

There’s something to be said for raw, introspective honesty. It not only provides relief to the one sharing, but it also lets others know they aren’t the only ones adjusting to difficult life issues. On his latest album, A Strange Journey Into the Unimaginable, underground rapper Murs bares his soul with some of his most candid, direct lyrics yet. Murs, a native of south central Los Angeles, has released nearly two dozen albums, but none of them belt out the trials and tribulations more poignantly than this one. Yet, he still manages to weave some lighter-hearted rhymes in-between his retrospections, showing fans that regardless of the darkness faced, one can still find reasons to smile beyond the pain.

In his first track, “The Unimaginable,” Murs strips himself down to the bone, providing a glimpse into his previously unimaginable life journey dealing with a painful divorce, a 12-month separation from his son, and the loss of his stillborn second son and a personal friend: I cried a whole lot when I filed for divorce, and when a homie got shot /…when I was separated from my son, I cried for almost a year /..a baby boy…he was born without a heartbeat. The next offering, “Melancholy,” is a more upbeat tune that, while continuing its focus on struggle, admits that Murs’ overwhelming grief has morphed into a lingering pensiveness: Hi everyone. My name is Murs, and uh…yeah. I’ve had a rough couple of years…I’m at this point now where I’m not too high and not too low. I’m just here.

“Same Way” is a fun, tongue-in-cheek diss to friends and family of Murs’ girlfriend who don’t like him, as he simply states, “Tell them I feel the same way.” On “Superhero Pool Party, Murs’ son asks for a bedtime story and is treated to a comical what-would-happen narrative involving characters such as Batman, She-Hulk and Professor X. Providing touching tributes to love and commitment on “So Close So Far” and “Vows,” Murs shows his softer and more hopeful side, and he closes out his album with the somewhat dark but still completely candid “God is the Greatest,”

While his experiences so far were something he most likely couldn’t have imagined, Murs has turned his tragedies into therapeutic rhymes. Spinning his tales so that everyone knows they aren’t alone, Murs has managed to turn the unimaginable into a tale of perseverance, giving all of his listeners hope for their own journey through life.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Sy Smith – Sometimes a Rose Will Grow in Concrete

sy

Title: Sometimes a Rose Will Grow in Concrete

Artist: Sy Smith

Label: Psyko

Formats: CD (via Bandcamp), Digital

Release date: February 16, 2018

 

 

Long hailed as the hardest working artist in underground soul, Sy Smith’s fifth album, Sometimes a Rose Will Grow in Concrete, proves once again she is a force to be reckoned with in both the underground and outer-ground music scene. This release is the first album completely written and produced by this multitalented musician, featuring her slick synth bass playing and lithe piano keying along with her incomparable soprano voice and signature vocal arrangements.

Smith’s voice shines through on this album, as she employs various techniques that she is known for and some she seems to honor straight out of 1990s R&B. The title song, “Sometimes a Rose will Grow in Concrete,” teases us with a small sample of her amazing whistle register, bringing it out at the end of the song as a parting gift. Lyrically, this song speaks to the current time, as its inclusion of lyrics such as “Sometimes we get no answers but still the questions will remain…sometimes a rose will grow in concrete, sometimes a caged bird will sing” reflects an activist tone regarding American society. Carrying a strong pen, Smith reveals victories won and battles still being fought as she provides a powerful, if haunting, ode to people who come through the harshest of trials and still bloom as beautifully as roses.

Smith’s continuing penchant for go-go is present in this album with the song, “Now and Later.” The funk-inspired beat interspersed with a cool rhythm-and-blues sound reflects back to Smith’s genesis in DC with her former go-go band “In Tyme.”  “Camelot,” one of the smoothest contemporary R&B ballads, reinvigorates that 1990s Janet Jackson-esque sound, complete with multiple background vocals, string instrumentals and long-winded notes held and released over and again in differing registers.

Providing us with never-ending, smooth stylings that both echo yesterday’s R&B and set the standards for contemporary soul, Sy Smith’s Sometimes a Rose Will Grow in Concrete proves that Smith herself is that enduring rose whose presence grows sweeter and stronger with each new release.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

The Reverend Shawn Amos Breaks It Down

Rev Shawn Amos
Title: The Reverend Shawn Amos Breaks It Down

Artist: The Reverend Shawn Amos

Label: Put Together

Format: CD, Digital

Release date: February 16, 2018

 

 

The Reverend Shawn Amos is back at it again, preaching his brand of blues on his latest, The Reverend Shawn Amos Breaks It Down. His sophomore album, The Reverend Shawn Amos Loves You, showed us that the Rev had our best interests at heart, and this trend of his continues on his latest offering. Son of Wally Amos, the first African American talent agent for William Morris in addition to being the creator of Famous Amos Chocolate Chip Cookies, Reverend Shawn Amos has been an ordained minister with the Universal Life Church, an A&R Executive at Rhino Entertainment and vice president of A&R at Shout! Factory.  He discovered blues while attending NYU film school, spending his summers tracing down the southern places in Peter Guralnick’s Feel Like Going Home trilogy from which Amos drew his initial blues inspiration.

The nine-song set includes five original songs, two inspired covers, and a three track “Freedom Suite” that rolls out like a Sunday Passion play. Amos was obviously inspired by the tremendous turmoil and social unrest around the world today in his songwriting, yet digging deeper into the lyrics reveals clues of admitted recent hardships in his home life. The result is an album that strikes a delicate balance between capturing personal challenges while capitalizing on the zeitgeist of this critical time in history.

 

The album opens with the early morning confessional “Moved,” followed by the first of his new freedom songs, “2017.”  This classic soul groove in the style of Curtis Mayfield and the Staple Singers was recorded at Royal Studios in Memphis. Amos is joined by Al Green’s backing band, the HI Rhythm Section, along with a string arrangement from Chris Anderson and vocals from the Masqueraders. The cornerstone lyric is a simple mandate: “hate and fear ain’t no vaccine, we’ve got to think about what our children’s eyes have seen in the year 2017.” The next song, “Hold Hands” is an Amos-led congregational plea for peace that features Hammond B3 from Peter Adams.

The Freedom Suite officially begins with track 5, which is an a cappella reading of Uncle Tom’s prayer. This pays homage to the Freedom Singers founder Cordell Hull Reagon, who first recorded the powerful civil rights song in the early 1960s. Amos then offers another side of his pulpit in “Does My Life Matter,” an expansion on Booker T. Washington’s words and intent. The fiery funk of “(We’ve Got To) Come Together” functions as an energetic admonishment, and the closing track, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding,” serves as a final alter call for the album and its audience.

The Reverend Shawn Amos Breaks It Down, as an album of timely songs, not only furthers Amos’ mission statement, but also stands as a landmark artistic achievement for his career as a bluesman of purpose.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

 

AJ Ghent – The Neo Blues Project

aj

Title: The Neo Blues Project

Artist: AJ Ghent [J-Ent]

Label: Ropeadope

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: March 16, 2018

 

 

AJ Ghent, hailing from Fort Pierce, Florida, has music literally running through his veins. His great uncle, Willie Eason, is the creator of the “sacred steel” tradition—a style of pedal-steel guitar playing that’s unique to certain African American Pentecostal churches—and his grandfather, Henry Nelson, is the founder of the “sacred steel” rhythmic guitar style. With role models like these, it’s no wonder Ghent wore out his father’s sacred steel CDs by the age of twelve. After high school, he and his wife, singer MarLa, packed up and moved to Atlanta, Georgia where soon after Ghent began a mentorship under the legendary Colonel Bruce Hampton, one of the original founders of Atlanta’s Hampton Grease Band. Gaining experience with Hampton’s band set the stage for Ghent’s subsequent career moves, including being “true to himself” as Hampton advised.

Ghent’s newest release, The Neo Blues Project, is a study in just that. The entire album is something different altogether—a musical fusion of blues, steel guitar, and rock that takes art and skill to master. But that’s something that Ghent has spent his whole life perfecting, along with his custom built 8-string lap steel hybrids. The offering weighs in at just six tracks, but don’t let its size fool you. This album packs a solid punch right where it’s necessary to keep the music in your head long after the last chord fades.

On his rock anthem “Power,” Ghent offers a track to fuel a revolution: “I’m gonna wait it out, ‘til my change comes / and I’m gonna pray, it won’t be long / ‘cause I’ve been tempted and I’ve been tried / and I’m a soldier ‘til I die / so you can bring it on, all your pain / you know why? ‘cause it’s a revolution comin’”

Combining his own style with elements of rock guitarists like Jimi Hendrix and Lenny Kravitz, Ghent part-wails and part-steels his way through each song. “Long List Friend,” co-written with his wife, is a blues ballad all of us can relate to in our search for “The One.”

But if you are celebrating the letting go of a former love, check out the final track, “Gonna Rock.” Its meaning and intent are completely celebratory, to say the least. “Wash Ya Hair” is a fun, catchy tune that really brings all of Ghent’s diverse talents of vocalization and guitar-playing to the forefront: “Shake ‘em off, wash your hair, let it shine, Everywhere.”

Ghent’s compact project completes its mission. The Neo Blues Project entertains the senses, introduces us to the full range of Ghent’s talents, and gives us a foot-tapping, air-slamming trip into the world of blues rock in legendary style. If this is Ghent being true to himself, I personally can’t wait for anything this talented artist has to offer us.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Mud Morganfield – They Call Me Mud

Mud Morgenfield
Title: They Call Me Mud

Artist: Mud Morganfield

Label: Severn Records

Formats: CD, Digital

Release date: March 9, 2018

 

 

They Call Me Mud, the newest release from Mud Morganfield, is one of those albums on which a musician seems to truly come into his own. While the legacy of his father, Muddy Waters, shouldn’t—and very possibly can’t—be extracted from Morganfield’s blues MO, this album showcases his own unique style. Morganfield, after all, came of age in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when music had already evolved from his father’s era of jazz and blues into a world where R&B, soul and Motown ruled. Combine his bass experience with Chicago bands of those eras to his already existing blues foundation and you have Morganfield’s own style at work.

A well-established case of Chicago area musicians add some downhome blues touches to Morganfield’s recording, including Billy Flynn on guitar, Studebaker John on harmonica and backing vocals, Sumito Ariyo Ariyoshi on piano, E.G. McDaniel on bass and Melvin “Pookie Stix” Carlisle on drums. Special guests include Billy Branch on harmonica, Mike Wheeler on guitar and Mud’s daughter Lashunda Williams as a vocalist. There’s a horn section featured on several tunes, and Mud himself plays bass on three tracks.

 

The signature song, “They Call Me Mud,” is one of those songs that really allow the musicians to show what they love to do best, and in Morganfield’s case, that is his vocalized growl which commands immediate attention throughout. “Who’s Fooling Who?” features Studebacker John on harp and Mike Wheeler on guitar going toe-to-toe. Morganfield also pays tribute to his father on the slide guitar blues “Howlin’ Wolf” and the shuffle “Can’t Get No Grindin’,” where all artists take a solo turn at the wheel. Morganfield and his daughter Lashunda provide a moving duet on “Who Loves You,” a song where Morganfield’s R&B inspiration grooves right in. The final selection, “Mud’s Groove,” is a jazzy instrumental enhanced by Bill Branch’s talents on harp, and is a perfect finale.

“I think it’s some of the best work I’ve ever done yet” proclaims Morganfield. “I feel that with the variety of material I have on here, people will get a chance to hear the other sides of my music.” The collection completely lives up to Morganfield’s claim. Regardless of whether you are an R&B, jazz, soul or blues fan, They Call Me Mud has something special and unforgettable for everyone.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Nina Simone – The Colpix Singles

nina

 

Title: The Colpix Singles

Artist: Nina Simone

Label: Rhino (U.S.)/Stateside (UK)

Formats: 2-CD set, LP (1 disc, 14 tracks), digital

Release date: February 23, 2018

 

In continuation of our focus on one of the industry’s greatest blues/jazz singers, Nina Simone’s The Colpix Singles showcases her pre-civil rights activist era releases. Simone’s professional career began in 1958 at a mere age of 25 with Bethlehem Records, but after the initial success of her hit “Porgy ( I Loves You Porgy), she moved on Columbia Picture’s recording company, Colpix Records. Simone’s forthcoming induction into the 2018 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has now spurred Warner Music into releasing a collection of the 7” singles Simone cut for Colpix. Remastered in mono, seven of the tracks are available in their original edits for the first time since the 1960s.

In this 27 track, two-disc offering, one can easily hear how her previous musical experiences fostered both her voice and performance maturity, as the songs recorded with Colpix reflect smoother, more controlled renditions of a diversified pool of well-known ballads. The first single from Disc 1, “Chilly Winds Don’t Blow,” was written by Hecky Krasnow, who was best known for Columbia’s novelty scores of “Frosty the Snowman” and Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer.”

Live recordings made at The Town Hall in Midtown Manhattan in September, 1959 include “The Other Woman” and “It Might as Well be Spring,” which originally appeared on her Colpix debut album, The Amazing Nina Simone.  The Archives of African American Music and Culture provided Warner Music with a rare copy of Simone’s “If Only For Tonight” and “Under The Lowest” (Colpix 156) for inclusion on this disc. Simone also showcases her blues prowess on the release “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” and the B-side “Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair,” which would become one of her signature songs.

Disc 2 includes a hauntingly whimsical rendition of “Cotton Eyed Joe,” complete with Simone’s piano stylings running in the background. Soon after, she croons of lost respectability and newfound reliance on “You Can have Him.” From the opening strains, Simone’s powerful alto flows from the speakers, meandering its way into the ears and hearts of its listeners via its audial and lyrical flows.

Two more offerings, “Work Song” and “I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl,” echo Simone’s early years in Atlantic City bars, pounding the ivories and belting out fast tempo blues. Her original tune, “Blackbird,” closes out the collection, showing her growing artistic maturity while revealing a glimpse of her future in social justice.

Simone would eventually compose and perform two of the most influential anthems of the Civil Rights Era, “Mississippi Goddam” and “Young, Gifted and Black.” That Simone participated in the Civil Rights Movement is an understatement. Nina Simone, from her formative years in Atlanta’s music scene to her eventual position as an outspoken social activist for Black rights, is one of the most influential activists and gifted artists of all time. Many thanks to The Colpix Singles compilers Nigel Reeve and Dean Rudland, and assistant Florence Joelle Halfon, for releasing this wonderfully remastered set. Simone’s listening audience will certainly reap the benefits.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Jerry Quickley – (american) Fool

quickley

 

Title: (american) Fool

Artist: Jerry Quickley

Label: Temporary Whatever

Formats: Digital (MP3, FLAC, etc. available via Bandcamp)

Release date: February 16, 2018

 

Jerry Quickley is no stranger to taking risks and producing avant-garde depictions of his experiences. During his career as a performance poet, scholar and journalist, he has been a visiting fellow at Stanford University, where he developed his groundbreaking theatrical work Through the Looking Glass.  He served as foreign correspondent for Pacifica Radio Networks in Iraq, which laid the foundation for the documentary Beats for Bagdad; his project Whistleblower (commissioned by Philip Glass) debuted in Europe at the Amsterdam Dance Event in 2016; and he wrote and produced the film Vampire Wars (2016), a fictional account of post-Civil War America. Quickley currently hosts a Los Angeles radio show, This Is Happening, discussing contemporary politics, arts and culture.

His latest offering, (american) Fool, is a collaboration with Los Angeles rapper and beatmaker Busdriver, who is also the producer. Two other L.A. musicians, Mike Ladd and Jevin Lamar, add their own flair to selected tracks. Quickley’s MO is raw from beat one of the album’s first single, “Colonist.” The song is multi-representative from the perspective of two brothers, during the mid-colonizer period, who theorize on their positionality within the system. As he states to Alex Albert Ross of Noisey, “Initially I conceived it as a duet between two brothers, both colonial soldiers, who were filled with regret at the horror of their work, writing old school snail mail letters to each other, from vastly different spear tip points of some horrific global colonial operations. But after my first verse, it takes a turn and goes somewhere else with the martyrs, big and small. Then Mike Ladd comes in with his verses and they take the track even farther out in some ways. But in the end I think that maybe, somehow, we might have accomplished a drunken time travel version of my initial idea of a conversation between two brothers, both trapped and being used as spear tips in a colonial nightmare.”

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Other offerings, such as “Passenger” and “A.I.,” showcase Quickley’s masterfully crafted storytelling. He spins lyrical, mystical tracks addressing some of the most socially conscious issues relevant to modern day. Not to be missed is the short narrative, “Prep School,” featuring Jevin Lamar, who discloses the all-too-familiar story of discrimination within the educational system. While Lamar offers no solutions, the track still impacts through its gritty honesty.

Quickley is no fool, American or otherwise. He clearly knows how to bring together a diverse collection of topics, dropping them against Busdriver’s driving beats, and turning them into a creative project to be methodically analyzed over and again. With each play of (american) Fool, Jerry Quickley’s message resonates more poignantly than ever before. In times like these, music with that ability is nothing less than a work of true art.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Nina Simone – Mood Indigo: The Complete Bethlehem Singles

Nina Simone
Title: Mood Indigo: The Complete Bethlehem Singles

Artist: Nina Simone

Label: Bethlehem Records

Formats: CD, Mp3, Vinyl

Release Date: February 9, 2018

 

 

Nina Simone was wooing audiences with her sultry vocals and captivating stage presence well before her first mainstream hit flooded the market. Her 1958 debut album, cut in one day at Belton Studios in midtown Manhattan, earned her the eventual moniker, “High Priestess of Soul”, which is all the more amazing considering Simone was a mere 25 years old. By 1959, she was a household name in the jazz world with her cover, “Porgy (I Loves You, Porgy)”, released by Bethlehem Records. As the song climbed the charts, Simone moved on to the larger and financially stronger Colpix Records, but not before cutting some of the smoothest tracks of her long career. After her departure, Bethlehem released those six additional tracks, and to commemorate the 60th anniversary of these recordings, BMG/Bethlehem has compiled these singles together as Mood Indigo: The Complete Bethlehem Singles.

This 14-track CD version follows the chronology of Simone’s Bethlehem recordings, starting with the first A-side “Porgy (I Loves You, Porgy)” and ending with the last A-side, My Baby Just Cares for Me”. The collection also contains an alternative take of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” as well as seven single-only tracks that previously have only been available on the original 45s. The LP version, pressed in standard black and limited edition blue vinyl, holds 12 tracks plus a bonus 7” replica of Simone’s first single backed with “Love Me or Leave Me.”

The Bethlehem Sessions displays a young Nina Simone confidently putting her distinctive stamp on the set of jazz numbers and Broadway tunes. Although this was her first album, Simone had contract stipulations asserting her right of musical direction, and she chose songs she was familiar with from her club years. In the collection, she is either performing solo on piano or backed by bassist Jimmy Bond and drummer Al “Tootie” Heath, both of whom went on to lengthy careers. Bonuses nestled in the liner notes are new interviews with Heath and an Ashley Kahn narrative regarding the recording of “Little Girl Blue”.

2018 not only marks the 60th anniversary of the Bethlehem Sessions, but it will also see Simone’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, slated for April 14. Simone, who would have turned 85 on February 21st, has never left the public’s eye since her passing in 2003. She recorded numerous albums on diverse labels from 1959-1974, and in the 30 years following her recording period she performed live to multiple global audiences.  Just as Simone traveled the world, she also traveled down many musical roads. Mood Indigo captures Nina Simone at an incandescent moment—when her sound held both a complexity of style and a purity of youth that is now preserved for ages to come.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Open Mike Eagle – Brick Body Kids Still Daydream

OME
Title: Brick Body Kids Still Daydream

Artist: Open Mike Eagle

Label: Mellow Music Group

Formats:  CD, MP3, Vinyl

Release date: September 15, 2017

 

 

Urbanity has helped mold the creativity of hip hop artists in some form or the other, and thus forms the foundation of this genre. Open Mike Eagle is no exception, and his most current album, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, demonstrates just that. The collection is a tribute to Chicago’s former South Side housing project, Robert Taylor Homes, where the young Eagle resided with family members during much of his formative years. Through his concept art, OME humanizes the forgotten ones of this former space, lending credence to their dreams of a better world for all.

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“Legendary Iron Hood,” the opening track, is a smoothly-spun tale of optimism in the face of adversity. OME’s laid-back delivery and beat reminds one of a lazy walk with one eye in the clouds and one on the road ahead. An obvious downtempo influence dominates the second tune, “(How could anybody) Feel at Home,” and its lyrics of “We live in a space that should have never existed, we’re used to the taste of a human in space…It smells like if you imagined you boiled a rose and the oven is on and the coil’s exposed” deposits you right into an imagined project via sight, taste and smell.  Nerdcore rapper Sammus displays her lyrical skills on “Hymnal,” and Has-Lo clips in on a later track, “95 Radios.” The apex of the collection, undisputedly, is “Brick Body Complex,” in which OME bares his narrative and his soul without pretention. But it’s the last offering, “My Auntie’s Building,” that forces attention by way of poignant activist lines such as: “They say America fights fair, but they won’t demolish your timeshare; blew up my Auntie’s building, put out her great-grandchildren.”

Lyrical and mystical, pensive yet precise. OME tears it down to the ground with his remembrance of lives lost under the rubble and dust of project demolition. As the title succinctly states, brick body kids still daydream. It’s up to us to make sure we give them something positive to dream about.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Nona Hendryx & Gary Lucas – The World of Captain Beefheart

Captain Beefheart
Artist: Nona Hendryx & Gary Lucas

Title: The World of Captain Beefheart

Label: Knitting Factory

Formats: CD, MP3

Release Date: November 10, 2017

 

 

If there are artists worthy enough for a Captain Beefheart tribute collaboration, it is the artistic duo of Nona Hendryx and Gary Lucas. The pair first beefed it up in 2013 with The Metropole Orchestra at Amsterdam’s Paradiso during an event produced by Dutch journalist and radio presenter Co de Kloet. Four years and multiple hours of creativity later, The World of Captain Beefheart makes its way towards a triplicate fan base for all three musicians—Don Van Vliet, Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx.

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Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, first grabbed the public’s attention with his cover of Bo Diddley’s “Diddy Wah Diddy,” capitulating his gritty blues style to an interview on American Bandstand in 1966 and an appearance on ABC’s “Where the Action Is”.  Soon after, Captain Beefheart and the “Magic Band”—whose members differed throughout the years but most notably of musicians Gary Lucas, Jeff Cotton, Bruce Fowler and Victor Hayden—released their first album, Safe as Milk, in 1967.

While many envisioned him as the next blues frontman, Van Vliet had other ideas. His strong interest in experimental, avant-garde sounds—fostered alongside his longtime friend Frank Zappa—would lead him to worldwide notoriety as one of the most singular voices and uncompromising composers in popular music, a trail-blazing maverick who single-handedly changed the face of popular music as we know it. His music combined Delta blues, free-jazz, and proto-punk rock with surrealist imagery, ecological obsession, and ironic humor.

During his 30+ year career, Van Vliet explored musical and lyrical territory never before charted in the confines of a traditional electric band line-up. His was a unique and unforgettable sound which proved highly influential on the first wave of punk and new-wave pioneers including John “Rotten” Lydon, Joe Strummer of the Clash , and Talking Heads’ David Byrne, as well as seminal artists such as David Lynch, Laurie Anderson, Ed Ruscha, Julian Schnabel, and Matt Groening. Captain Beefheart/Van Vliet retired from the music scene in 1982 to concentrate on his painting career before passing away from complications of MS in 2010.

Gary Lucas first made his mark as a visionary guitar player on the final last two Beefheart albums, Doc at the Radar Station (1980) and Ice Cream for Crow (1982). A world-renowned instrumentalist and Grammy-nominated songwriter and composer, Lucas has released over 30 acclaimed albums in a variety of genres. Gary also collaborated most significantly with the late Jeff Buckley, co-writing “Grace” and “Mojo Pin”, the first two songs on Jeff’s 2-million selling “Grace” album.

Nona Hendryx is a longtime fierce admirer of Don Van Vliet’s music, and possesses the huge voice and the commanding stage presence necessary to do full justice to repertoire that originally featured Beefheart’s unforgettable multi-octave voice. Although she’s best known as a funk/soul great thanks to her long tenure with international hitmakers Labelle (as well as the group’s antecedent, Patti Labelle and the Bluebelles) in addition to her own excellent R&B solo outings, she is no stranger to experimental rock territory, having been featured as guest vocalist with cutting-edge ensembles including the Talking Heads, Bill Laswell’s Material, and Jerry Harrison’s Casual Gods.

The World of Captain Beefheart is an album that truly speaks for itself. “Sun Zoom Spark” opens the tribute, proving that in the Beefheart world, Hendryx has vocals worthy of the Captain’s raspy legacy. Other classics such as “When It Blows Its Stacks” and a moving rendition of “My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains” cement the pair’s project worthiness. Ably supporting Lucas and Hendryx are expert practitioners of Beefheartian music: bass player Jesse Krakow and drummer Richard Dworkin. Both are veterans of Fast ‘N Bulbous, Lucas’ free-jazz instrumental outfit that specializes in repertoire from the Van Vliet canon. Completing the lineup is keyboardist Jordan Shapiro, who has played with Lucas in his long-running avant-rock crew, Gods and Monsters.

A visionary and lyricist with unrelenting perseverance, artist Don Van Vliet is deserving of every expertly offered chordal riff Lucas and Hendryx have to give us. Through their dedication and respect to his craft, Captain Beefheart will live on in the hearts and souls of his fans forever, both long-standing and contemporary alike.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

 

 

 

 

 

John Lee Hooker – King of the Boogie

John Lee Hooker

Title: King of the Boogie

Artist: John Lee Hooker

Label: Craft Recordings/Concord Bicycle Music

Format: 5-CD Box Set

Release Date: September 29, 2017

 

Turning 100 calls for a celebration regardless of who you are, and in the case of musician John Lee Hooker, only a “Go Big or Go Home” mentality will suffice. In honor of this boogie master’s centennial, Craft Recordings has released a career spanning, retrospective 5 CD box set honoring this guitar-driven, legendary artist. King of the Boogie features not only Hooker’s iconic hits, but also rarities, live recordings and several previously unreleased tracks. Housed within a 56-page hardcover book, the collection includes a wide selection of photos, taken throughout the musician’s life, plus new liner notes by writer and John Lee Hooker historian Jas Obrecht, as well as by the artist’s longtime manager and friend, Mike Kappus.

The collection is part of a year-long celebration and commemoration to Hooker and as a complement to his musical recordings, the GRAMMY Museum® in conjunction with the John Lee Hooker estate is exhibiting Hooker’s performance outfits, guitars, photos, and awards in his home state of Cleveland, Mississippi through February 2018. At that point the exhibit travels west to the GRAMMY Museum® at L.A. LIVE.

John Lee Hooker (1917-2001) was born 100 years ago, near Clarksdale, Mississippi to a sharecropping family. Throughout the years, there has been some academic debate about his original birth year. However, The Hooker family maintains 1917 as the de facto date. Says daughter Zakiya Hooker, “As we all know there was no great push for accuracy back then in that portion of the community. But we just stick to what my father told us, which was what he was told by his mother.”

As a young man, Hooker worked his way up north to Detroit to pursue his passion of music. By 1948, the artist had a hit on his hands with one of his earliest recordings, “Boogie Chillun‘.” From there, Hooker would record over 100 albums throughout the course of his six-decade-long career, building a diverse collection of fans along the way—from folk musicians and beatniks, to the stars of the British Invasion. The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Carlos Santana are among those who cite Hooker as a major influence.

Mike Kappus recalls in his liner notes, “Everyone who knew John Lee Hooker loved him and felt privileged to be in his presence. While he influenced generations of musicians with his incomparable style, that impact on musicians stepped up to yet another level once they got to know and, universally, love him.” In his later years, as Hooker found himself in one of the busiest, most productive eras of his career, the bluesman was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Blues Hall of Fame and Memphis Music Hall of Fame; was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and took home four GRAMMY® Awards, plus a coveted Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000.

The album is organized chronologically, showcasing Hooker’s influential recording career from start to finish. Disc one begins with his first release, “Boogie Chillen.” The remainder of the disc provides Hooker’s classics the way he was first known—as sole commandeer of pulsing rhythms on the electric guitar. Disc two and three offer stunning recordings of previously unreleased sessions—“Unfriendly Woman” and “Meat Shakes on her Bones”—as well as the more widely-known “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” and “Homework.”

Disc four is a completely live tribute section, featuring Hooker’s performances at various Newport Folk Festivals, the American Blues Festival in Hamburg, Germany, Café Au Go-Go in New York and California’s Soledad Prison. The final disc of the collection features Hooker’s collaborations with other musicians such as “Little” Eddie Kirkland, The Groundhogs, Canned Heat, Santana, George Thorogood, Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison, Joe Cocker, Robert Gray, Warren Haynes, Jimmie Vaughn, Los Lobos, Eric Clapton and B.B. King.

Timeless and classic, cutting-edge and influential—all describe John Lee Hooker’s storied life and career as the undisputed boogie ruler. Whether solo and unplugged or accompanied and wired up, Hooker’s guitar and vocals prove that in the world of the Delta and blues, no one else but Hooker can wear the Crown.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Mavis Staples – If All I Was Was Black

Mavis Staples
Title: If All I Was Was Black

Artist: Mavis Staples

Label: Anti-Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release Date: November 17, 2017

 

 

Mavis Staples ushers in her eighth decade of singing truth with the call-to-compassion album If All I Was Was Black, her third collaborative project with songwriter, producer, and Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. Their first partnership in 2010, You Are Not Alone, won a Grammy Award for Best Americana album. Their second effort together, One True Vine, was a Grammy nominee. But If All I Was Was Black marks the first time Tweedy has composed an entire album of original songs for Mavis’ legendary voice and a nation she’s uniquely poised to address. As a witness to both past and ongoing American civil rights issues, Staples feels that, in many respects, “nothing has changed…we’re not loving one another the way we should.”

 

The album’s first track, “Little Bit,” firmly establishes this work as a conscious ode to the déjà vu mood gripping the nation of late. A driving guitar hook sets the tone immediately at the open, with Staples’ vocals rasping out an early downbeat of “This life surrounds you, guns are loaded. This kind of tension, hard not to notice.” Throughout the song, Mavis leads listeners through call-and-response vocals in a soundscape that recalls Sly & the Family Stone’s mix of joy and social criticism unfolding over a funk-edged rhythm section. Following is the title track, an upbeat, joyous groove that continues the album’s humanistic theme of understanding and acceptance. Directly addressing those who respond to someone’s race without seeing their shared humanity, Staples expertly croons, “If all I was was Black, don’t you want to know me more than that?”

Current events appear on the record obliquely, reflecting a commitment to a universal approach that shines a comparative light on the past by suggestively addressing today’s events. As Mavis explains, “We didn’t make the songs point to a specific person. If you follow the lyrics, it’s about yesterday and today.” “We Go High” borrows its chorus from Michelle Obama’s speech on the first night of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, and the track “Build a Bridge” parses exactly which lives matter and how we can begin to talk about it.

Staples’ darker tone can be glimpsed in both “Who Told You That?” and “Try Harder.” Alluding to the frustration and realism of today, her telling line “There’s evil in the world, and there’s evil in me” signals harsh undercurrents of danger. Despite these elements, the mood ring on Mavis’ 2017 call-to-action is set to love, running through and over the occasional fury and pragmatism. The songs move like an ocean tide, ebbing and flowing, with Mavis countering the anger with an eye toward the work that is required to bring change. In the end, the answer lies in lifting each other up, Staples style. She’s not embracing the anxious hesitation of respectability politics but rather the possibilities of love.

Try Harder. Two small words, containing the biggest potential imaginable. To Mavis Staples, this phrase is key to substantial change if society will take her lead and lovingly follow through.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Talib Kweli – Radio Silence

Radio Silence
Title: Radio Silence

Artist: Talib Kweli

Label: Javotti Media

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release date: November 17, 2017

 

 

Is it the current political atmosphere or possibly just time for the genre to once again acknowledge its roots? Whatever the reason, there is a conscious stream of artists dominating mainstream rap right now, and Talib Kweli is leading the way. Kweli is no stranger to the scene—his first collaborative group, Black Star, was formed with Mos Def in 1997—and to date, he has worked with artists Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, Just Blaze, the Beastie Boys and Kendrick Lamar. Kweli is featured on Dave Chappell’s Block Party, both as an actor and a soundtrack artist. In 2011 he founded his own label, Javotti Media, billed as “a platform for independent thinkers and doers.”* With an eye on social issues both past and present, Kweli offers us his take on 2017 with his latest, Radio Silence.

The album unlocks with “The Magic Hour,” a song that introduces the album’s concepts and purpose through magical lyricism. Opening with the ethereal sounds of strings and a choir, the tune carves its own place in the world of rap solely on these feature alone. Kweli’s opening line, “Last one to fall asleep, first one to wake up. No Doubt. It’s the Magic Hour,” layered on top of an upbeat piano riff sets the standard for the remainder of this Brooklyn phenom’s offerings. The song’s final chords fade away under Kweli’s assurance that “hip hop will flourish with nourishment and the proper care,” a parental line from one who has been there, done that, and knows how to make it last.

The philosophy continues to pour out of this rap statesman rhyme after rhyme. The second track, “Traveling Light,” thumps the pulpit of Kweli’s truth through musings about his own genesis towards the rap dimension. Unquestionably possessing a magical talent for deep lyricism, he brings Anderson .Paak’s smooth vocals into the track to compliment his message. “All of Us” unfastens the mood even further with its break-out sampling of a rally for justice. Jay Electronica of Roc Nation and powerhouse Yummy Bingham spin their consciousness right along Kweli, adding a multi-layered resonance reverberating past the very last strain of violin fade-out. The lead single, “Radio Silence,” is a blend of Kweli and Myka 9’s exceptional cypher savvy interspersed with Amber Coffman’s haunting refrains. Never one to ignore the heart strings for long, Kweli and BJ The Chicago Kid’s “The One I Love” reminds us that regardless of what’s going on, that one special person makes it all worthwhile.

Of all the offerings not explicated here—“Chips,” “Knockturnal,” “Let It Roll,” “Write at Home”—by far, the standout is “Heads Up Eyes Open.” Dedicated to late rap promoter Kenneth “Headqcouterz” Walker, this part testimonial/part inspirational melody features not only mind-bending truthfulness on topics such as police brutality and protest rights, but also functions as a call for honesty and faithfulness because “the picture is so much bigger than what we could even imagine.” Indeed. Talib Kweli’s vision is so much larger than what we typically conceptualize. This portfolio of political discourse keeps challenging and teaching long after the voices, piano riffs and handclaps fade away.

Radio Silence, through its proverbial introspections and uplifting retrospection, seamlessly moves its message through the airwaves of our minds. In Talib Kweli’s world, silence truly does speak louder than words.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

 

Bette Smith – Jetlagger

jetlagger

Title: Jetlagger

Artist: Bette Smith

Label: Big Legal Mess

Format: CD, MP3

Release date: September 29, 2017

 

 

“The Gospel According to Bette” is the most apt refrain one can give to Bette Smith’s debut album, Jetlagger. Showcasing a gritty, booming voice well fit for her pulpit of southern soul preachin’, Smith follows in the likeness of icons such as Etta James and Tina Turner, churning out message after emotional message in her razor-edged style.

A native of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Smith began her love of music at an early age, singing in her church choir at the tender age of 5. Her path to secular composition took her through music therapy classes as part of her curriculum within Colombia University School of Social Work, and into the 9-5 grind as she wrestled with her longing for musical performance outside of the clerical sphere. Her older brother Jimmy, who succumbed to kidney complications in 2013, gave his approval, offering final words of encouragement that resonated with Smith long after his passing. She formed her band slowly, but once complete she wouldn’t turn down any gig—“I’d play a senior center one day, a street fair the next.” Her perseverance paid off, and as a token to her brother’s memory, she proudly wears the color yellow on stage and in her music videos.

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Smith begins her offering of soul-searching, lyrical melodies with “I Will Feed You,” which starts out with a choir of background voices slowly giving way to Smith’s musings of unrequited love. The next track, “Jetlagger,” not only allows Smith to growl her way into her listener’s hearts but also to prove her standing in the vintage soul-inspired world. “Durty Hustlin’” and “Shackle & Chain” are as diverse as their titles suggest. “Do Your Thing” makes use of strong horns, a driving bass and a winding tempo that allows Smith to do her own thing, in her own unique way. But it is her psalm “Manchild” that preaches to Smith’s audience most fervently, warning from its opening chords she “don’t want nobody tellin’ me what to do,” she “just want a manchild, I can teach my lovin’ to.”

Modern soul is Bette Smith’s gospel truth, proving when it comes to down-home, soul-searching tunes, nothing beats a classic sermon like Jetlagger.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

 

Semantics of Mr. Porter – Denzil Porter

Semantics of Mr. Porter

Title: Semantics of Mr. Porter

Artist: Denzil Porter

Label: That’s Hip Hop

Format: CD, MP3

Release date: September 22, 2017

 

 

A lyricist is the ultimate giver in rap, handing out his words in the form of sweets to be collected and savored one at a time for the treats they are. Semantics of Mr. Porter proves that poetics are still in play well after the golden era thanks to the stylings of Denzil Porter. Porter, a native of North Bronx, offers his personal take on his method, which he describes as occurring “when I get a feeling, or in a mood, or something that happened at that moment… a song is something that stamps that moment for me, and also stamps the moment for the listener who relates.”

Semantics of Mr. Porter definitely owns up to its thought-provoking name. The first track, “Et Tu Brute,” is a direct reference to Caesar’s last words, “And you, Bruce?” In listening to the song, one can’t help but make the connection between the two worlds—ancient and modern—in which the way of life might have altered but the way life is hasn’t changed much at all. Porter wraps his meaning into a plethora of rhymes purposely structured around the determination one feels while chasing a dream tied to the frustration one faces in obtaining that reality. “Time Soon Come” operates semantically in much the same way, but opens the bag up further by providing a stringed instrumental background that sugars the message. As the album moves forward, Porter’s drops offer more diversity of sound in tracks such as “Right Now,” which utilizes a funk bass line as its foundation under the layered poetics of Chris Rivers, and “”What It Takes,” in which a less heavy ear-catching piano riff compliments Oswin Benjamin’s “Do you know what it takes?” call-and-response lines.

But the most riveting instances on the album happen in the form of narrative vignettes Porter mixes into his bowl of conscious thoughts. These six cut-ins provide a first-person story of a robbery, from the planning stage to the end result, and demonstrate Porter’s commitment to describing real-life choices that mark a person in ways one can’t fully comprehend until it’s too late. From his tongue-twisting rhymes and his mind-twisting thoughts, Denzil Porter is definitely a force to be reckoned with.  He may not be your typical rapper, but in his own style Porter aims to inspire his listeners; to uplift them and others around them.

When you open the door to Semantics of Mr. Porter, you might get more than you bargained for, but your bag of conscious candy will provide you with unexpected surprises long after the last echoes of Porter’s voice fades into the darkness.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi