When Jamil Rashad released his first music as Boulevards – a self-titled EP released in 2015 – he arrived at the party ready to dance. He may have had something to say, but the lyrics were secondary to funky, upbeat grooves. Over time though, Boulevards has evolved into a more complex affair for Rashad, ultimately leading to the deeper, more atmospheric 2020 EP, Brother!
Boulevards’ new album, Electric Cowboy: Born in Carolina Mud, feels like a natural extension of Brother! and the next logical step in Boulevards’ evolution. The album establishes a contemplative mood right away with “Turn”. Over an insistent rhythm, the song’s narrator notes a litany of issues that are weighing on his mind: “Wheels keep burning, broke with no money / Clothes look dirty, wife won’t love me…” No immediate solutions are offered.
“Together” introduces some autobiography into the mix: “Born in Carolina mud, out the womb I made a fuss / Talked a fool when I cuss, Momma made me take the bus.” Despite whatever he’s going through, the singer is “trying to make it better, pull myself together.” And so it goes.
Though it takes a few listens – Rashad’s vocals are intentionally deep in the mix – Electric Cowboy gradually reveals itself to be more than just a light party album. The funk is there from the start, echoing everything from Curtis Mayfield to Gnarls Barkley and beyond. But the lyrics take on addiction, relationship issues, and, on the album’s last two songs, “Time” and “Problems”. About midway through, Electric Cowboy takes a heavier turn, both lyrically and musically, with Rashad noting at the end of the moody “Problems”, “If someone could reach for me would anyone care / I heard an answer, but no one was there.” This is an unsettling note on which to end Electric Cowboy, but it’s true to Rashad’s vision.
Fortunately, these lyrics are delivered via songs that are catchy the first time you hear them and grow catchier with each listen. Rashad is clearly a student of the music that came before him, but the influences you pick up will probably depend on your own reference points. I’m hearing Superfly-era Curtis Mayfield and arrangements that remind me of the Dramatics (a great 1970s Stax Records group), but your results may vary somewhat. These influences are strong, but they don’t overwhelm Rashad’s sturdy songs.
As noted, Electric Cowboy reveals itself over time, but some songs do jump out at you immediately. “Where Is Da Luv?” is one such track, a forward-thinking pop-funk jam that will have you bobbing your head even as you’re contemplating the romantic doubt detailed in the lyrics.
While Rashad is listed as executive producer of Electric Cowboy, he has enlisted an all-star indie team to help him achieve his vision for the album. The album was co-produced by Blake Rhein (Durand Jones & the Indications) and Colin Croom (Twin Peaks), with some assistance from Adrian Quesada of Black Pumas. Rhein and Croom share songwriting credits with Rashad throughout the album, and each plays several instruments on it, expertly bringing the music in Rashad’s head to life. While that music is based in funk, it also encompasses indie pop and heavier guitar rock.
Ultimately, Boulevard’s Electric Cowboy: Born in Carolina Mud is a testament to the power of music as a cathartic force. And a seriously funky one, at that.