Acclaimed Grammy-winning bassist, composer and bandleader Ben Williams’ newest album, I AM A MAN, is a sociopolitically charged project that strives to “show the world the complexity of our humanity as Black American men.” With help from producer and sound designer Brian Bender, the album boasts a humid and hazy sound that recalls neo-soul albums released by The Roots, Erykah Badu, Bilal, and D’Angelo. Williams sings lead on the majority of songs, in addition to playing the electric and acoustic bass. Joining him is an amazing lineup comprised of keyboardist Kris Bowers, guitarist David Rosenthal, tenor saxophonist and bass clarinetist Marcus Strickland, percussionist Bendji Allonce, trumpeter Kenyon Harrold, flutist Anne Drummond, and drummers Jamire Williams and Justin Brown.
The album’s title references the historic 1968 sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis. During the strike, African American men marched through the streets with picket signs that read, “I AM A MAN” in arresting, boldface type. “The image of this long line of men, holding the picket signs, all saying the same thing – there’s something powerful about seeing this message over and over again,” Williams explains. The strike brought Martin Luther King, Jr. to the city where he gave his prophetic “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech the day before his assassination. The album’s title track echoes this tragedy, with Williams’ singing in a mournful voice, “He paid the cost to be the boss, but at this game he’s still lost” over a multi-layered chorus. In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Williams also adapted “We Shall Overcome,” a protest song for civil rights and a tribute to black history. Sung by Joan Baez in 1963 during the March on Washington and referenced by Martin Luther King Jr. during his final sermon in 1968, Williams’ rendition of “We Shall Overcome” is a slow and meditative track with chant-like vocals, illustrating that while the battle for the end of racism and discrimination is far from over, we will continue to strive for that ideal, remaining hopeful for a more peaceful future.
Williams not only composed the songs on the album; he also wrote lyrics for the guest artists, including Kendra Foster on the uplifting tracks “Promised Land” and “Come Home,” and Muhsinah, who blends her voice with Williams on “High Road.” In “If You Hear Me,” the percussive lead single, Williams smoothly handles lead vocals as well as electric bass, and wrote the arrangement for the accompanying string quartet.
Williams’ new album provides a timeless fusion of R&B and neo-soul, successfully delivering relevant and meaningful lyrics that illuminate important topics and issues in both relationships and society. I AM A MAN showcases superb quality, making this the perfect album for some quiet reflection and contemplation.
Reviewed by Jared Walker