Robert Glasper Experiment: “Black Radio”
Technically, this is the full-length recording debut of the Robert Glasper Experiment– following a half-album’s worth of material they recorded for Glasper’s Double Booked collection. There, the Experiment split the running time of the album neatly in half, sharing space with Glasper’s more traditional, acoustic jazz Trio. That the pianist would follow that collection– designed to showcase his twin passions for jazz on the one hand, hip-hop and R&B on the other– with a full hour’s worth of chill, groove-centric, electric music from the Experiment, gives a pretty good idea of where Glasper’s creative interests and passions are centered right now.
And indeed, Black Radio is an album borne of love, not a desire to show-off. That might be the most crucial distinction between the Experiment and the Robert Glasper Trio, actually, even more significant than the addition or subtraction of electricity. Playing within the realm of acoustic trio jazz gives Glasper and his musicians a showcase for their own virtuosity, something that by now none of us should question. We know he can play. On Black Radio, the Glasper’s rhythm section is the bedrock on which the album is built, Glasper’s piano the glue that holds it together. They prove commentary and accents, but mostly their role is support– for Song and for singers, as well as MCs.
And they’re joined by some of the best. Glasper conceived of Black Radio as an album where his friends from the hip-hop and R&B worlds could come hang out in the studio and each have their turn at the mic. That kind of easygoing warmth and familiarity permeates the record, which never really feels like the work of a band that’s pushing the limits of what a quote-unquote jazz record can do, even though it very much is; for all of its daring and its incredible ambition, Black Radio is not an album marked by “experimentation” so much as a sense of discovery and exploration that’s centered on the songs themselves. The goal is to go deep into these songs, and we’re invited along for the journey. Everything from the languid spoken-word introduction/”mic check” to the hour-plus runtime establishes this as the work of musicians working hard to make us feel welcome, and to encourage us to slip into this music an invest something of ourselves in it, minus any distractions or gimmicks. How could we resist? The album features Erykah Badu and Meshell Ndegeocello, Lupe Fiasco and Yasiin Bey, Lalah Hathaway and Bilal– and everyone here is just on.
That might be what keeps the album from ever feeling like a compilation, or like a revue for a bunch of famous singers and MCs: It’s all egoless, it all fits together seamlessly, and everyone is as invested in this as they are the music they record under their own names. You can hear it on the two MC-featuring tracks, for sure. Check “Always Shine,” an album standout not just because of the smokin’ Bilal hook but also because Lupe Fiasco proves that, when his record label isn’t around to force him into their easily-marketable box, he’s actually an ace MC, showing off an easygoing flow and waxing philosophical about love and legacy, referencing Gil Scott-Heron and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the process. Yasiin Bey (he’ll always be Mos Def to me), meanwhile, gives a blazing performance on the title cut; he’s just in fire, rapid-fire rhyming giving way to soulful singing and then back again. Of course, he invokes both of the possible uses of the term “black radio”– one of them explicitly, when he nods to the “only part [of the plane] that survives,” and the second more subtly, with a Public Enemy allusion that pushes Black Radio into the slipstream of rap history.
The songs that feature singers are just as good. In fact, some of my favorites are gathered here. Readers of this blog know that I carry a torch for Erykah Badu– think her to be the finest living R&B singer, in fact– and hearing her do “Afro Blue” in this context is a dream come true. She just kills it, as does Ledesi on a sunny and soulful love song called “Gonna Be Alright.” And one of the other great singers from the soul/jazz idiom, the great Bilal, has a sleeper hit tucked away at the end of the record, a reading of David Bowie’s “Letter to Hermione” that’s warm and empathetic and remarkable in its emotional nuance.
It would be silly of my not to mention the headlining band, which is always blazing hot even though the music is mostly pretty chill. Glasper just couldn’t make this music– indeed, this whole album would topple under its own weight– were it not for the bedrock rhythm section of bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Chris Dave. Indeed, I’d call Dave’s tight, in-the-pocket groove on “Afro Blue” every bit as integral to that song’s success as Badu’s vocal. And then there’s Casey Benjamin, who provides some lovely flute work on “Afro Blue” but mostly sticks to the vocoder. What he brings to the instrument, though, is a sense of musicality that you don’t often associate with it– this is not Kanye West’s “Autotune,” in other words. He contributes a lovely, soulful call-and-response with Lalah Hathaway on “Cherish the Day,” but of course his real showcase is on the guestless closing number, an already-famous cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” where Benjamin brings a whole new level of indecipherable weirdness to Kurt Cobain’s lyric.
Glasper provides memorable fills and flourishes throughout the record, but it’s to his credit that he primarily takes on a less flashy role, as the guy who keeps this whole thing afloat. An unassuming role, perhaps, for an album uncommonly easygoing and graceful record. That so many bright talents could be represented here, all doing such stellar work but disappearing so selflessly into Song, is a testament to the vision of their ringleader, and to the fact that Black Radio is extraordinarily more ambitious and radical than it might first seem.