Robert Glasper Mixes Genres To Create "Black Radio"

Robert Glasper -- Black Radio -- Blue Note/EMI -- 4 STARS

A soft piano melody fades slowly into the sharp snap of a snare drum and a deep and moody bassline. “Now as we prepare for our liftoff, you’ll need only two things to direct your course: your ears and your soul. I bring to you the Robert Glasper Experiment—experimentation for meditation,” Shafiq Husayn croons smoothly on the first track of the Robert Glasper Experiment’s newest album, “Black Radio.” Husayn, known for performing with the hip-hop group Sa-Ra, is one of many artists featured on “Black Radio,” which includes Erykah Badu, Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def), and Lupe Fiasco, to name a few. In bringing together many prominent black artists to contribute to the album, Glasper, an accomplished pianist, gives his band’s form of experimental jazz popular appeal while exploring the different parts of “black radio”: funk, jazz, hip-hop, rhythm and blues, and soul music. The album successfully combines genres to create an eclectic fusion that spans multiple generations of black music.

“Black Radio” deliberately showcases the musical styles of the more famous black artists in its lineup. This makes sense from a commercial standpoint; the audience’s familiarity with the artists is a major contributing factor to the album’s initial buzz. It is not hard to pick out Lupe Fiasco’s distinctly melodic flow in the song “Always Shine” and Erykah Badu’s famously clear vocals in “Afro Blue.” The album does not have rely too heavily on these artists, however, because Glasper is inventive and jolting throughout. His light touch on “Always Shine” adds an element of delicacy to a song whose lyrics are otherwise heavy. “Would be the start of world peace / And the transformation of niggas / Like the transubstantiation of liquor / But that’s just turning them into blood / And we’ll be right back where we was,” Fiasco raps. Fiasco’s lyrics suggest pessimism regarding the trajectory of the black community, but they sound much less ominous couched in the smooth melody of the piece. While Fiasco might garner recognition for his role in the album, the Robert Glasper Experiment deserves praise in its own right for nuancing the sounds of his more familiar counterparts.

“Black Radio” also shows The Robert Glasper Experiment artfully transforming songs with non-African-American origins into sophisticated soul. On the closer, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Glasper’s band takes a song known for its unintelligible lyrics and loud, abrasive chorus and turns it into a modern jazz-fusion piece. The abstract piano voicings, bongos, and a vocoder help take the popular Nirvana song completely out of its original context, and the synthesized vocals pay homage to the autotune that is in vogue in hip-hop today. In this way, Glasper’s band showcases its ingenuity and versatility.

Though the Robert Glasper Experiment does an excellent job creating relaxing grooves for the songs on “Black Radio,” at times those grooves are jarringly interrupted. During the last minute of both “Always Shine” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” there are a series of loud electronic blips that distract from the otherwise polished songs. Probably an effort to introduce yet another unconventional element to the experimental album, those brief moments do not make sense in the context of the songs.

“Black Radio” on the whole has a smooth, organic feel. Black music is more than just catchy beats and heavy basslines; it is a fusion of ideas, feelings, and styles that come together to make something that people can relate to on a deeper level. Glasper’s fusion of these different genres highlights the compatibility of the different styles of black popular music and creates a soundscape with a soul of its own.

—Staff writer Charlotte D. Smith can be reached at charlottesmith@college.harvard.edu.

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