Now Hear This! Issue #15
This time around, I review a quartet of new albums that have come across my desk and piqued my interest: the new Gary Clark Jr. album, a new mixtape from Kehlani, the comeback album from Chaka Khan, and a collaborative project from Rhiannon Giddens called Our Native Daughters about which I am most excited.
So the GRAMMY Awards was a pretty big bore, and none of my picks won anything. This was the year of #GrammysSoGirly, and the ladies dominated; this article is kinda in that vein, as three of the four artists here are female. I went off about Kacey Musgraves winning for Top Album- I had never heard of her… but I went to Spotify later and listened to her album, and while I still don’t agree about it being Album of the Year, it is actually a pretty good album. To be honest, there were several of the major categories where I couldn’t pick a winner from any of the nominees, that’s how bad it was for me. The way I see it, the GRAMMY Awards is like All Star games in the four major sports- more popularity contests than awards based on an artist’s actual talent or song/album merit… and that’s too bad…
I thought about trying to publish this article to close out Black History Month; then I rethought it, saying Black History is 365 days a year, not just in February, so it doesn’t matter if it’s published after the month is over- it’ll still be relevant. I’ve also come to think of the month as one that’s mainly for the benefit of White people who care to learn about the rich history of African Americans in this country; regrettably, many Blacks don’t know this history, either, beyond Martin Luther King, Jr., so I suppose it’s useful for us, too…
THE HEARD (Reviews)
Our Native Daughters
Songs of Our Native Daughters
This is a project brought to fruition by Folk artist and Greensboro, NC native Rhiannon Giddens, whose mission is to retell the stories of the Black experience as originally told through those who lived it during the late 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, and also to reclaim the heritage of the string band tradition (especially the banjo) as part of Black history and culture through song itself. One of the elements of the stories being retold here involve the tradition of minstrelsy… this comes at a time when “blackface” has been prominent in recent news. Some of the stories have never been told, or have been altered or whitewashed. Her last album, 2017’s Freedom Highway, was a collection of songs whose lyrics were derived from slave narratives, and was one of my Best of ’17 releases.
Joining her in this project are Leyla McCalla, whose new album I reviewed in my last article; Allison Russell, who is part of the Folk outfit Birds of Chicago; rising Folk singer Amethyst Kiah, whose style can recall elements of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Tracy Chapman, and Brittany Howard from Alabama Shakes. This Black woman Folk supergroup (who, in my mind, is missing only Valerie June from this assemblage) came together to record these sessions in an old house in the Lafayette, LA area, with production overseen by Rhiannon’s producer Dirk Powell.
The 13 songs presented here run the gamut of sources, from scraps of melody or dialogue recalled from memory, and sung by slaves, old Blues singers, to Haitian Folk, modern adaptations of other melodies or lyrics, to a wonderful cover of Bob Marley’s “Slave Driver“. The banjo is the focal instrument throughout the tracks, as it is an instrument whose origins date back to 18th century West Africa, and then more recently to Jamaica. The ladies are all multi-instrumentalists: Rhiannon is also a fiddler, McCalla a cellist, and Russell a clarinetist, among other instruments. As Blacks left the oppressive South at the beginning of the 20th Century and started heading north, they left behind all associations with it, including the banjo, which has since been co-opted by White artists, and they’ve made it their instrument, and Folk and Bluegrass largely genres preformed by them. So… as such.. this may prove to come as difficult listening for some, especially in terms of lyrical content, as these songs can vividly recall some harrowing experiences. Check out the following video about the making of perhaps the most intense song, “Mama’s Cryin’ Long“…
Each of the ladies bring something unique to the table here, and result of all of their influences create a seemless track list. Kiah opens the set with “Black Myself“, a song about intraracial discrimination, or more colloquially, the light vs dark skin argument that persists to this day, and “Polly Ann’s Hammer“, about one woman’s strength to endure her personal hardships in grueling servitude. Russell gives us “Quasheba, Quasheba“, a slave ancestor of hers, as she details the story of her life, from her journey on the trans-Atlantic ride, and throughout her life until her passing, and “You’re Not Alone“, which was inspired by her own tales of childhood abuse at the hands of her White father, and with deference to her five year old daughter. Giddens gives us a glimpse into what a slave may have been thinking during the period where minstrel shows flourished, and education of slaves was discouraged with “Better Git Yer Learnin’” and a haunting melody in “Barbados“. McCalla gives us “I Knew I Could Fly“, about a woman who gave up her dreams of playing music for family, at the behest of her husband, only to mine her craft after his death, as well as a Haitian Folk tune “Lavi Difisil“.
The packaging for this disc includes detailed notes on the inspirations that resulted in the songs in this project, as well as the lyrics for all songs and the personnel configurations; it is a good argument against the current streaming culture that exists in music buying today- you don’t get this kind of annotation on Apple Music or Spotify. Go BUY the physical CD! This project deserves that, and all the critical acclaim that will rightfully come its’ way. I predict this will make not only my 2019 Best Of… list at the beginning of next year, but many other’s lists as well… check out the audio for “Black Myself“…
While We Wait
The latest release from 23 year old Oakland native is considered a mixtape, a taster for what’s to come, as she’s preparing her sophomore album for release later this year… and also preparing to deliver her first child. Maybe I don’t know what makes this a mixtape- I always thought of that term in a literal sense, growing up on actual mixtapes (cassettes) from DJ’s back in the day; this is a millennial definition of the word, for seemingly no good reason. It’s a nine track set clocking in around 31 minutes, more than all five of the albums Kanye produced last year (his own, Nas, Pusha T, and the others), and Chaka Khan’s new album (see next review).
We find Kehlani talking about love in all its’ stages, from the acknowledgement of desire for someone (“Feels“) to the blossoming of a new relationship (“Butterfly“). Musiq Soulchild joins her on the set opener “Footsteps“, which describes a breakup of two people who can’t quite let each other go; she also covers the object of her desire being comfortable with her plainness on the very TLC-ish “Morning Glory“- this one even features a 1993 beat! 6LACK joins her on “RPG“, a track about inattentive lovers, Ty Dolla $ign assists her on a song of lover betrayal (“Nights Like This“), and Dom Kennedy spits a verse on “Nunya“, about jealous exes that can’t let go. Then there is the track about getting too serious with the side piece (“Too Deep“), and finally, the set closer “Love Language” discusses a communication gap between lovers that don’t actually speak the same language.
This is a nice little project to hold us until the next full-length album drops. It’s an interesting set from an interesting young woman; it feels rather personal, as her songs indicate lovers from both sexes- once the love interest of NBA star Kyrie Irving, she describes herself as “queer”. She is genetically exotic, claiming five different ethnic groups as part of her makeup, an offspring of two drug addicts, and she has an affinity for tattoos, which I personally find to be in gross excess on her (especially those on her face)… but, to each his/her own. Musically, though, I can get with this, despite the number of features here (y’all know I don’t go for those in abundance), and the subject matter focusing a good bit on P ‘n D- at least it isn’t presented in an obscene manner… here is the video for “Nunya“…
For many artists, maintaining relevance is important; for an R&B legend that has now released music in five decades, it would seem to be of less importance, than say, Fantasia or somebody. But here she is, the original Queen of Funk, now 65 years of age, returning with her first album of new material in 12 years. It’s produced by a British guy who goes by the name Switch, who has been a major presence in the current UK dance scene; Chaka’s trying to keep up in her advancing years.
There is a feel with this album that is unlike any Chaka Khan album preceding it, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at first; then it came to me: the very thing that Chaka championed, working with a current, hot producer, is the very thing that lets her down throughout this album. For parts of it, she sounds like a guest, or even a sample… on her own album. Current production values don’t include much live instrumentation or complex, melodic song structures, or even high end- everything seems compressed in the mid-range, and it also sounds like Chaka’s voice is even being manipulated electronically. In short, Chaka doesn’t get much of a chance to let loose and use that soaring voice. The two lead singles from the album, the Jamiroquai-ish title track and “Like Sugar“, which uses a sample recently used by the group Jungle, are arguably the two best tracks here. Speaking of tracks, there are only seven tracks… really only six- the closing track “Ladylike“, which is the most Chaka-like song in this set, is a redux of the earlier track “Like a Lady“, a track that has an 80’s feel, perhaps trying to recapture the magic of “I Feel for You“. The album is shockingly brief, clocking in at just 27 minutes, so it feels more like an appetizer than a full meal.
Chaka is a legendary talent, who, in my opinion, needed producers of a caliber similar to her personal brand cache – starting with, perhaps, Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam, who produced her last album, 2007’s Funk This; Babyface or Quincy would’ve also gotten more out of her while enveloping her in more satisfying musical surroundings. This album is an expose for the producer, as he uses all of his studio tricks and gimmicks to tremendously over-produce this album. It’s not all bad, just not all good; she deserves more than this puts out… here are the videos for “Hello Happiness“, where she makes a cameo, and “Like Sugar“, where she is nowhere to be seen…
Gary Clark Jr.
The third studio album from 34 year old Austin, TX native Clark is gonna put him in a position recently occupied by Lenny Kravitz, and prior to him, by Ben Harper. That position? Black Rock or Folk artists whose music takes a turn towards the political realm, to the chagrin of a mostly white fanbase, some of whom will turn on him because of his opinions. The usual array of comments will surface: “just play music and leave politics out of it”; “another piece of left-wing race-baiting”. They’ll suddenly start to question his accomplished guitar playing, which they thought was fantastic, but now it’ll become “he’s only an average guitar player”, and the music will become less satisfying. All because the man spoke his truth, they’ll knock him off the pedestal they placed him on, and he’ll be reduced to just another complaining Black man claiming victimization. What his sudden detractors won’t realize is that even though he has money and a degree of fame, he still is the same as me, in the eyes of many people. They’ll never take a step in his shoes, and will never know what it’s like to go through life as someone who looks like him. But they’ll stop buying his records because he chose to inform his art with his life.
And that’s a damn shame. As I will now ‘stick to the music’, if these fair weather fans don’t listen to the entire project, they’ll miss much of what they like from Clark. Essentially, once you get past the first two tracks (which were the lead tracks that tightened jaws), of the remaining 15 tracks, you’ve got a really good soulful, rockin’ Blues album. When I first saw the title of the album, I thought he was covering the John Lee Hooker classic; but from the opening line, I knew this was something altogether different… “”Now that I got the money / Fifty acres and a model A / Right in the middle of Trump country / I told you, “There goes a neighborhood” / Now Mister Williams ain’t so funny / I see you looking out your window / Can’t wait to call the police on me …” Then he continues with this lyric… “Nigga run, nigga run / Go back where you come from (x2) / We don’t want, we don’t want your kind / We think you’s a dumb bum / Fuck you, I’m America’s son / This is where I come from / This land is mine…” Not exactly a sing-along track (another complaint I’ve heard). Here’s the video…
The following track “What About Us” talks of inclusion for all, and gives us this refrain… “Well, there goes the neighborhood, one way or another / You can call it what you want / But the young blood’s taking over / Don’t get too comfortable, just plan on moving over / ‘Cause things gon’ stay the same /It’s the same thing over and over / What about us?…” Here’s the video…
You can thank Gary’s neighbor, Mr. Williams and his bigotry for these songs. Now… once you get past those two, there is actually a lot of variety on the album. You get a rockin’ Blues from the next two tracks (“I Got My Eyes On You (Locked & Loaded)” and “I Walk Alone“, a reggae-influenced track (“Feelin’ Like Million“), a Punk-y track (“Gotta Get Into Something“), a track called “Feed the Babies” that would make Curtis Mayfield smile, and then perhaps his Purple Rain moment, “Pearl Cadillac“, a homage to his mother. Then there’s some good bluesy Pop with “When I’m Gone“, the soulful “The Guitar Man” and “Don’t Wait Until Tomorrow“, and finally, some straight-ahead Blues with “The Governor” and “Dirty Dishes Blues“.
As I’ve been known to say, no-one wants to hear your opinion, unless they happen to agree with it, so for those people who will walk away from GCJ based on those first two tracks, you will be replaced by many others who appreciate him taking a stand and speaking up for himself. This is Gary’s most versatile and satisfying (to me) album to date; do yourself a favor and check it out.