There was a period of time where BadBadNotGood were the proverbial “next shit”. Their 2011 viral videos that saw the band covering various Odd Future tracks catapulted them to almost overnight fame. Their ice-cool and varied approach captured the hearts and minds of not just jazz and hip-hop heads but also broader fans of alternative music. It’s easy to forget how different the cultural landscape was in 2011. Nu jazz, neo-soul, and broken beat were more comparably niche interests, and BadBadNotGood undoubtedly aided in their growth in popularity.
Their debut album BBNG featured covers of tracks by Slum Village, Nas, and Gangstarr, as well as Flying Lotus, Joy Division, and even a Legend of Zelda medley. This unforced, something-for-everyone style of eclecticism worked wonders for the band’s rapidly-growing fan base, though not without also generating a degree of controversy. They were equally hailed as youthful prodigies here to save jazz from turtle-necked oblivion as they were lucky chancers with limited formal skills. Everyone had an opinion on them, but regardless of which side you fell on, you had to admit that they were onto something different.
Talk Memory, the Canadian band’s fifth full-length comes after BadBadNotGood took a comparatively lengthy five-year breather in-between albums. Their previous – 2016’s IV was wildly successful, and the band ended up touring it for over two years. In that time they also worked with Kendrick Lamar, contributed to the Black Panther soundtrack album, and even provided the musical accompaniment to a Louis Vuitton runway show. In 2019, keyboardist and founding member Matt Tavares also left the band, though he is still cited as a “contributing songwriter” to the BadBadNotGood project.
This period of change and experimentation before returning to the studio has resulted in a clear newfound sense of ambition within BadBadNotGood. Talk Memory is by some distance their most ornate and grandiose album – rife with lush strings, lengthy tracks, and a more improvised, though still generally structured feel. One of the band’s hallmarks was their tight, controlled rhythm – a trait that undoubtedly derived from their myriad hip-hop influences. That is deconstructed on Talk Memory, as BadBadNotGood loosen up and spread their wings in service of a more traditional work of resplendent jazz.
Whereas for most of the band’s career, it felt as though they focused equally on performing hip-hop as they were jazz, this album sees BadBadNotGood fully let rip with their virtuoso jazz skills. The second section of “City of Mirrors” (just one of the four tracks that feature string arrangements from Brazilian composer Arthur Verocai) features immaculate shredding, as the band play fast and loose with meter, dancing around one other in a dazzling display of musical ability. “Timid, Intimidating” features a similarly loose logic, including a lengthy closing section that sees multi-instrumentalist Leeland Whitty rip through a brilliant saxophone solo.
The most intriguing influence on Talk Memory appears to be that of the spiritual jazz subgenre. “Unfolding (Momentum 73)” features gorgeous Eastern instrumentation and a swirling arpeggio motif by guest star Laraaji, while the similarly shimmering “Open Channels” is among the album’s loosest and least structured tracks. The inclusion of harpist Brandee Younger on the stunning title track also places the album in this spiritual lineage, given the New York musician’s previous work with Pharaoh Sanders and Ravi Coltrane. These moments are often transcendent and show how much BadBadNotGood have developed (both musically and spiritually) over the last decade.
There’s guaranteed to be some dissenting voices aimed towards Talk Memory. It jettisons some of what made BadBadNotGood iconic in favor of sonic palettes that are undeniably more traditional and well-explored. However, to even make this move would have taken bravery and ambition. The band’s decade-long exploration of the intersection between jazz and hip-hop reaped great rewards. However, it also felt like the band were overdue for a reinvention. Watching them reach towards a different goal is hugely exciting, and the layered compositions, spiritual flourishes, and stellar guest features of Talk Memory point towards an exciting new future for BadBadNotGood.