Revered in his homeland and a relative unknown on the North American continent, Italy’s Jovanotti makes his first proper crossover attempt with Italia: 1988-2012, a selection of songs culled from a career spanning 24 years. It’s a wonder why it took this long, especially considering that his frequent collaborations with artists like Michael Franti and Ben Harper should have at least sparked an inkling of curiosity on this side of the Atlantic. Jovanotti (real name Lorenzo Cherubini), it would seem, has been resigned to the margins of World music, a genre that has had some trouble being taken seriously by North American audiences. As a matter of fact, though, there is an overwhelming influence of American pop music to be found in the Italian’s work, enough so that his music is never in any danger of alienating listeners who don’t speak Italian (of which almost all his songs are performed in).
Italia criss-crosses all over the artist’s timeline of work, with no real chronology of his musical progression. This wouldn’t matter at any rate; many of the songs have been re-recorded, providing some of the older material a rethink so that it may hold its own against the more recent cuts, thereby giving the entire collection a sense of cohesion. Many of the songs mark Jovanotti’s strange and surreal beginnings as a novice rapper, simply winging it by the grace of his natural charm informed by a stubborn willingness to try anything and everything. The rap-rock Beastie Boys stylings of his earlier output give way to far more measured takes on hip-hop with Jovanotti’s palette expanding to include everything from Afro-Cuban pop and troubadour folk to ‘70s funk and electronica. Opening number “Con la Luce Negli Occhi” features a hypnotic incantation rambled over a percussive, skeletal groove. It merely serves to whet the appetite that is fully satiated by the meatier beats of “Sulla Frontiera”, a slab of thumping hip-hop electrified by a pulsing cosmic synth. Elsewhere, the strolling “Penelope” ups the hip-hop ante with a steady drum loop buffered by a fretless bass rubber-banding in all corners of the mechanized groove.
Jovanotti’s offhandedly amative approach to his Shakespearean raps has an almost urban glamour that makes his delivery feel at once flirtatious and curiously detached, most noticeable on tracks like “Piove”. When he’s not rapping, the singer’s loose, improvisational vocals give warm, earthy heat to cuts like the plaintive folk musing “Mezzogiorgno” and the continental sweep of the Domenico Modugno-haunted “Una Storia D’amore”.
There are also a couple heady dips into rock territory as well, lending the collection a wider scope. Slivers of spaghetti-Western guitar spike the galloping Latin punk of “Sálvame”, and “Il Più Grande Spettacolo Dopo il Big Bang” (an offering from 2011’s weirdly off-kilter kitsch-disco/Nintendo-rock experiment Ora), is simple, catchy meat-and-potatoes rock.
For the uninitiated bunch (generally North Americans), Italia serves up a rough approximation of what Jovanotti is all about. It’s an excellent starting point for those who are new to his genial charms, though it only scratches the surface of a deeply talented individual who has taken great strides to reinvent Italy’s idea of popular music. Seeking out a few album-proper titles from his back catalogue may give you an even clearer picture of what this man can do when given an opportunity to present his ideas in a more consistent and streamlined format (namely, a full album rather than a compilation). Keep your ears keen nonetheless and you’ll discover what Italy has already known these last 24 years.