by Jon Hunt
BJ The Chicago Kid, In My Mind
Lion Babe, Begin
Adrian Younge, Something About April II
A bit of a tut-tut to local radio station The Current, first. It’s Black History month, and while the station has admirably been playing a different black artist every week — last week was Stevie Wonder and this week Sam Cooke, so it’s not exactly deep cuts, but still admirable — the “album of the week” this week is the very, very white Lissie. Lissie, fergodsake, who isn’t even as good as Carly Rae Jepsen but people see for whatever reason as, like, a pure-pop savior. I guess Black History means just that: rather than viewing black folks as a culture that’s still contributing to the musical dialogue, they’re just, you know, historical. Something that happened in the 60s and 70s, back when “real music” still reigned.
The shame of this is that some really, really great records by black artists have come out this year, though of course you’d never know it by listening to alt-radio. The best of these is the major label (Motown!) debut of Brian Sledge aka BJ The Chicago Kid. BJ’s guested on a number of high-profile singles (including Kanye and Schoolboy Q) as well as put out an indie mix tape called, wonderfully, Pineapple Now-Laters. In My Mind, though, is his true opening salvo and pretty much a low-key-soul masterpiece. BJ’s voice is an absolute knockout, and there’s something about his lyrical approach — mostly about the duality of living the church life while living in the world of the streets — that’s super appealing and real.
Musically, this thing’s the perfect blend of the old-school soul approach that plays super well on White Guy Radio and the more synthesized, trippy approach that’s been the hallmark of recent hip-hop albums like Future’s and Drake’s (and, you know, Kanye’s). The combo mashes together wonderfully, blending trap-soul beats with buttery-smooth soul guitars and horns on “Wait ‘Til The Morning” or overdriven slam beats merged with mid-70s smooth synths on the low-key hit “Church.” What this means: even if you’re a little scared of the synth-and-no-samples approach of modern hip-hop, this stuff has enough classic soul to put it over.
And really, you’ll be most amazed by BJ’s way with a melody — I particularly love the quite moving piano ballad “Shine” (a little corny! But perfectly so!) and the gospel/soul-isms of the magnificent Woman’s World that could very easily be a Raphael Saadiq outtake (BJ samples Raph on “The New Cupid,” which also features a guest appearance by Kendrick). And check out guest turns by like-minded rappers like Chance and the ever-brilliant and underrated Big K.R.I.T. It feels like a nifty mashup between your favorite soul stuff and the stuff pouring out of the car radio down the block. Magnificent.
And I’ll be damned if I don’t love Lion Babe’s killer debut Begin almost as well. Singer Jillian Hervey is Vanessa Williams’ golden-throated daughter, and possesses a remarkable mane that gives the group their name — but their secret weapon is DJ/crate-digger/producer Lucas Goodman, who knows his way around a retro soul groove and knows how to create memorable hits across a pretty wide spectrum from dance-floor bangers to old-school soul groovers. Best song by far: the amazing and empowering “Wonder Woman” which features a Pharrell-tinted sly-ass groove and a outer-space 70s sensibility that, in a perfect world, would render it a massive hit. Second best song: “Where Do We Go,” which updates a 70s disco groove into a modern electro-tinged dance floor classic. Does it break ground? Dunno, probably not — it’s a smooth approach that sounds a lot like the neo-soul records that came out in the late 90s. But who didn’t love those? And who doesn’t appreciate the stuff that made those records cool — the smooth grooves, the reliance on 70s-inflected melody/harmony, love of disco-beatage? Fact: these guys haven’t hit their stride yet, but this fun and cosmic little record tells me they’re gonna do awesome things.
And dear lord, can we talk about the amazing Adrian Younge? He’s been the retro-beatmaster behind a half-dozen-or-so brilliant records including two for Ghostface Killah. But it’s really on his solo albums that he destroys the most — Something About April II showcases the man’s magnificent, one-guy-and-a-ton-of-crazy-retro-instruments approach (oh, you bet the electric sitar comes out of hiding on this sucker!). A dozen-ish guest vocalists (including Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier, Bilal and everybody’s fave soul singer Raphael Saadiq) bolster Younge’s amazing arrangements and songwriting on this masterpiece of classic soul — damned if it’s not one of those records that can just transport you wholesale to another decade (in this case, the 70s — check out that black velvet-ish cover photo, fergodsake). I’m not sure why this album hasn’t hit harder than it has — listen to a tune like the groovy “Sittin’ By The Radio” and tell me it wouldn’t sound great next to more beloved retro stuff like Mavis’ new one (sure, it’s weirder, but man oh man is it cooler). And holy crap, dig “Hands of God,” a duet between soul belter Karolina and the chilly-voiced Sadier that sounds like something off an age-of-aquarius concept album from 1973. Unbelievable.
And look, all of these records came out in the last two weeks. Tell me again about black “history?” I’m more excited about black present, thankyouverymuch, and the continued revolutions in sound and arrangements and album-making that are happening all over the damn place. I wish to god white people were paying attention.