Last year, Robert Glasper won the “Best R&B Album” Grammy for Black Radio, a recording that blended his roots as a jazz pianist with his history as a producer and bandleader for various hip-hop artists. It was a plain vindication for a brilliant musician who was trying to create a fresh approach to black pop music, and the award made Black Radio 2 all but inevitable.
But this is where Glasper has been headed for a while anyway. The Experiment shared a disc with the pianist’s acoustic jazz trio in 2009 (Double Booked), and it has been his main horse since then. Though the bands had overlapping personnel, the concept of the Experiment is that it is a versatile hip-hop/R&B group — not three improvising jazz musicians playing art music but a single unit that carries out brilliant settings for pop songs.
So, in listening to Black Radio 2, the honest question is not whether the latest recording is a strong work from a jazz artist working with pop music but whether it’s a great pop record, a pop record that is fresh, creative, compelling, beautiful.
(In the jazz world, there might be some interesting debate about whether Glasper is “rescuing” the art from its popular decline, from its increased alienation from larger audiences. The answer, I believe, is NO. Jazz is a vital art music that doesn’t need rescuing. I don’t know if Black Radio 2 is “jazz” or not or whether that’s even a question worth debating — and this review hereby dodges this question.)
Black Radio relied on a group of well-known tunes that Glasper covered in new ways: one by Sade, Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue”, two rock tunes by David Bowie and Nirvana, and a new song written with Me’Shell Ndegeocello. Other songs were perhaps more fresh, with hip-hop integrated into a 1970s soul aesthetic so that the best of classic R&B was melded with originality. Glasper’s jazz trio achievements were all there to be heard indirectly: specifically a way of arranging a rhythm section so that it is harmonically interesting and so that a busy piano groove locks into drum patterns that draw from hip-hop’s rhythmic “stutter” while still feeling utterly organic and soulful, never mechanical.
But, for this listener, the first Black Radio was marred by some sounds that soul music ought to have left behind: the plastic clang of certain synth sounds, the robotic novelty of the vocoder favored by Experiment member Casey Benjamin. The first record seemed to me, well, not as modern as it really wanted to be, a little stuck in a soul groove a couple decades old.
On repeated listenings, the strengths of Black Radio were clearer — plus, where else were you going to find such a brilliant blend of singers and rhythm section in contemporary music?
Black Radio 2 is better and certainly more original if less startling. That vocoder leads things off on the opening track, but the groove of new drummer Mark Colenburg is so perfect against Glasper’s blend of Fender Rhodes and acoustic piano that even I am relenting. Benjamin changes registers in an interesting way and comes off as simply part of the groove. With the band set in our feet as well as our souls, a chorus of the album’s voices performs an impressionistic “Mic Check”. And then, with a thrilling and jaunty piano groove, we are off on a journey: “I Stand Alone” puts Common before the mic with Patrick Stump handling a chorus that matches the piano groove. From the start, you’re in good hands again — feeling like there’s something fresh in the way hip-hop integrates with Glasper’s affection for older soul grooves.
The guest vocalists on 2 have one strong outing after another. Jill Scott locks into brilliant drum groove on “Calls”, a track that keeps things simple at first but then deepens with repetition and added layers of backing vocals, added shimmers of electric piano, and a striking bridge section that folds in a ringing phone sound and more abstract vocal lines. Scott’s vocal tone goes from dry to warm, and Glasper knows how to drop the drum groove out at the end to create a spare kind of suspense.
The most compelling track here — the one that really should be on the radio in some format — is the Anthony Hamilton feature, “Yet to Find”. Glasper’s roots in gospel music come through in the piano feeling here, and Hamilton repays the impulse with a great mass of overdubbed harmony vocals that reverberate with choir-ful power. But it’s interesting to note that this is the song that seems the least related to Glasper’s “jazz” roots. The piano part could almost be something hip by Bruce Hornsby, and in the end this is “just” a really great, really enjoyable soul song. But, that’s more than enough, right?
The excellent material keeps coming, with singers who know what to do with it.
The longest track here is the ballad “Trust”, with Marsha Ambrosius taking the vocal. Colenberg keeps it simple, using a basic heartbeat figure on his kick drum, and Glasper plays a tremolo with his right hand that undergirds the layers of vocals on the chorus. Faith Evans winds her vinegar vocal around a buzzing synth line on “You Own Me,” and Norah Jones sounds sharp and clean, riding on keening harmonies over a crackling 32nd-note drum figure on “Let It Ride”.
What makes 2 better or more original than the first Black Radio? These songs, tied as they are to older soul sounds, are new, and in that sense 2 is literally a fresher batch of wax. For me, song for song, it’s also a more consistently terrific album to listen to, with the flow of catchy pop material undeniable and just enough edge in the form of hip-hop influence.
The only cover here is the closer, Stevie Wonder’s “Jesus Children” (from Innervisions). It’s absolutely wonderful… as was the original version. Which gets us back to the larger questions about Glasper’s recent “experiments” and about Black Radio 2 in general. Glasper’s take on Wonder adds a rap (from Malcolm Jamal Warner, Cosby fans) and is undergirded by the trio’s slippery-and-beautiful sound, but its pleasures are in many ways the same as the 1973 original.
So: this is music with many of the virtues of Innervisions, which would make it some of the best music you’re going to hear this year because Innervisions is a classic, a work of art. But that classic is also four decades old, suggesting that Glasper’s take on “black radio” is rooted in the past more than it is truly an “experiment”. On the other hand, Black Radio 2 contains ten terrific new songs in that mode.
For which we all can be thankful and stop worrying, perhaps, about matters of history or innovation or “jazz” or the rest of it. Just enjoy listening for once.