The best, most sincere, most skillful piece of pop music making of 2013, fusing hip-hop and jazz and classic rhythm-and-blues.
Listening to No Beginning and No End, the new recording by singer José James, you are going to feel and you are going to move. It’s a modern soul album that comes from both hip hop and jazz, and it deserves to climb the charts and have critical acclaim. How often does that happen?
When you read that José James comes from jazz, it’s easy to be cynical. Plenty of fine pop artists like to give some lip service to jazz as some kind of resume-credibility builder. But James is the real deal. His last recording, 2010’s For All We Know, was released on the revived Impulse label, a set of nine standards recorded in duet with jazz pianist Jef Neve. A “purer” jazz record would be hard to imagine.
But, before that, James had released interesting R‘n’B on a small label. Like so many contemporary musicians, he is no more bound by stylistic boundaries than a modern filmmaker is restricted to one kind of film stock or a modern novelist is bound to a single point-of-view. James’s background and training are such that, more than most, he has all the tools at his disposal.
No Beginning and No End puts everything together for the 35 year-old James—a recording that is sexy, hip, engrossing, and eclectic without being unfocused. Jazz may be there in some of the singer’s phrasing and tonal control, in the slick piano work by Robert Glasper or Kris Bowers, or in the pocket-funky horn parts, but mainly this is a set that hits you square in gut or the ass or the heart. It’s slippery and funky and ready to move you several ways.
The album opens in spare joy with just cracking backbeat drums, percussion, then James almost whispering his lines (“I won’t stay if you wanna go / I can’t wait for it any more / In the time that I used to know / It’s gone away like a river flow / It’s all over all over all over . . . your body”) with just a trickle of electric piano and then hip horn jabs. The mood of No Beginning and No End is clear—intimate, soulful, direct to the groin but also catching the ear. The percussion grooves but it also clatters and unspools in places, moving into abstract patterns sound like avant-hip-hop. And the tune ends with the horns taking over with a trumpet solo. Smooth but not slick, easy on the ears but palpably different.
And that’s what you hear throughout: soul music that is different enough to change the game some. “Sword+Gun” finds James in duet with French-Moroccan singer Hindi Zhara, channeling a North African melody and a new percussive groove, yet there is that same tight horn section again and the same spare band sound. “Trouble” seems like it could be on a more mainstream soul album—or maybe one from the 1970s. The chorus explodes in chiming harmony, and the Fender Rhodes chords sit atop the groove like powdered sugar. Tasty.
The two songs written by Emily King bring to mind a specific ‘70s soulster: the folk-inspired Bill Withers. These tunes are powered by acoustic guitar strumming and lift on their cushions of sweet folk harmony combined with nasty but understated drums grooves. James himself evokes Withers specifically with a vocal delivery that stays away from too much emotive business but instead delivers the lyrics with a calm cool. No need for crazy vocal histrionics because the songs are sincere and good on their own.
The truth is, there are too many highlights here to cover in one review. You won’t be able to get enough of “Do You Feel”, a James tune with a killer gospel groove that is carried by Kris Bowers on acoustic piano, whose long solo is both direct as a blues statement and flashy like jazz. On this one, James lets his voice soar, wide open at the throat and rich as Sinatra. “Vanguard”, co-written with Robert Glasper, is propelled brilliantly by Glasper’s drummer Chris Dave, smooth but off-kilter a bit. “Make It Right” was composed with bassist Pino Palladino, who also produced much of the album, and it feels like a glorious series of syncopations that never get old. The title track is a slow-soul love song that finds James singing his own harmony vocals against a very spare background. It is hypnotic.
It’s right that No Beginning and No End ends with the song “Tomorrow”. First, it’s a love song, and this is a recording to love. But the song also links your ears back to James as a jazz singer—he is accompanied here only by piano and a small string group playing a complex chamber arrangement that embraces his vocal perfectly.
But more to the point, No Beginning and No End well ought to be tomorrow. This is the best, most sincere, most skillful piece of pop music making you are going to hear in 2013. It reaches backward for some of its sounds, but it moves forward too, fusing hip-hop and jazz and classic rhythm-and-blues. I dare say: It points the way.