Jazz was once a prevailing art form in the black community. But in recent times, the genre has been co-opted as superficial elevator muzak to mainstream culture. The good stuff is devoured by the intelligentsia and college town free-form radio stations. And so it goes.
On the Robert Glasper Experiment’s latest release, Black Radio, the argument is extended to urban culture at large. Clear Channel is set in Glasper’s cross-hairs, which the musician likens to “the dumbing down” of the African-American experience. Hell hath no fury like a jazz-fusion pianist scorned.
Corporate radio doesn’t traverse into Glasper’s genre-hopping territory, even though there’s a good case when playlist artists such as Lupe Fiasco and Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) crop up on his album. All and all, Glasper’s collaborations slam home, especially the Afro-Cuban jazz number “Afro Blue.” On the re-working of this standard, Erykah Badu’s vocals come through with a remarkable clarity as Glasper’s atmospheric piano clinks on cocktail grooves. From there, Black Radio never lets up. Standout track “Always Shine” finds Fiasco’s rapid-fire flow merged with Bilal’s raw vocals. This is pure organic potency, a street-level fable through the lens of sophisticated background music. Meanwhile, “Consequence of Jealousy” is more typical of the downtown fringe-jazz and urban alternative crowds. Meshell Ndegeocello’s bedroom whisper is embedded in a sea of crashing high-hat cymbals and woozy improvisational sets that meander in and out of focus.
Fittingly enough, Glasper closes the album with an extended seven-minute cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The original version featured a mix of hard and soft dynamics but in Black Radio-land, Glasper’s piano playing is marked by an unflappable sensitivity. Vocoder effects, bongo drums and a smattering of autotune give the proceedings a psychedelic edge as the refrain “here we are now, entertain us” underlines Glasper’s thesis.
Black Radio started out as an indictment of modern R&B–a type of slightly smarmy elitism. Even though it may never reach its intended audience, the after effects may carry over into urban music for years to come. One can only hope.
Joey Hood has been writing about musicians since 2003. His byline has appeared in “American Songwriter,” “Nashville Scene,” Nerve.com, NPR and “Ya’ll.” He graduated with a Bachelor of Science in mass communication from Middle Tennessee State University with a focus in the recording industry. Read more: Joey Hood | eHow.com.