When we last left the Robert Glasper Experiment, it stood knee-deep in star power with the Black Radio series, featuring everyone from Erykah Badu to Faith Evans to Malcolm-Jamal Warner on classic jazz tracks with a strong neo-soul angle. The quartet topped the Billboard jazz charts, scored a Grammy, and, of course, did quite a number on genre boundaries.
Three years later, the glut of famous guests are nowhere to be seen. Instead, the Experiment lands squarely in the spotlight for the entirety of ArtScience — and they’re more than ready to prove that their ever-changing style doesn’t depend on anyone but themselves. Aptly named opening track “This Is Not Fear” sets this tone with a spoken word statement in which Glasper himself asks why he should confine himself to one of the many styles of music created by African-American culture, while in the background, unplugged keys, bass, and drums morph into an electric mélange of hip-hop beats, computerized whispers, and warm brass.
There’s no question that the Robert Glasper Experiment grasps the true jazz spirit, and as such, traditional instruments and arrangements stay minimal throughout the album. Voice, bass, keys, and percussion alike are electrified, a synthetic medium for a natural musical flow. Flow, by the way, is something that the Experiment has in spades. It’s easy for a group to take this kind of newfound musical freedom as an excuse to spin off in four different directions at once, but the Experiment expands in unity, and even when the group’s harmonies are buoyant enough to float on, rhythms are tight, and each song has direction.
Slow, simple R&B ballads that sound like the ’90s pepper the album, as do midtempo electro-soul grooves and even a little blues rock. The album’s centerpiece and first single, “Find You”, combines a healthy dose of everything: outer space synthesizers, electric guitar that alternates between wailing and growling, and soothing piano chords behind Casey Benjamin’s processed croon. “Find You” folds genres and decades together, careening through space and time until the segue at the very end brings us back to the present with a passionate, unrehearsed appeal for peace from Glasper’s own son, then five years old and watching news reports on the shooting of Michael Brown. It’s a stark, emotional moment, laid bare as it is in the midst of some of the most intricate work on the album.
Shifting between so many styles and moods, the Experiment has the chance to demonstrate a range of skills and instruments, and generally does, with one inescapable exception: those processed vocals. Sometimes, a touch of vocoder works perfectly, giving a robotic feel to space-age tracks like “Thinkin Bout You” and “Written In Stone” or an ethereal highlight to inspirational closing track “Human”. On tracks like infectiously funky “Day to Day” or the more acoustic “Hurry Slowly”, though, it unsettles, missing the retro mark and ending up sounding outdated. It’s one flaw in an album full of innovation, but unfortunately, it’s a flaw shoved into the foreground, and hard to ignore.
For any imperfections, though, ArtScience presents the Experiment’s considerable musical finesse and feel for the cutting edge better than the Black Radio albums could have while weighed down with the responsibility of showcasing big names and doing justice to jazz classics. An ingenious blend of soulful tunes and undeniable technique, ArtScience signals a bright, self-reliant future for the Robert Glasper Experiment.