Album(s) of the Week: Robert Glasper Experiment’s “Black Radio” and “Black Radio 2”

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Gus’ Thought

Robert Glasper Experiment
Black Radio
Blue Note, 2012

As Robert Glasper’s fingers glide across the piano on “Lift Off,” it is clear that Black Radio, Glasper’s fifth studio recording, will be different. Released in 2012, Glasper is forever in the pocket with his group The Robert Glasper Experiment consisting of Casey Benjamin on woodwinds, Chris Dave on drums and Derrick Hodge on bass. From there, a slew of jazz, R&B, soul and hip-hop royalty such as Bilal, Erykah Badu, Lalah Hathaway, Lupe Fiasco and Yasiin Bey offer up their talents, making Black Radio a musical journey that is as innovative as it is enjoyable and impossible to categorize. With that, this record is an example of the fluidity that exists between musical genres and styles.

Considering his background and first albums, it would be easiest to categorize Glasper as a jazz pianist. Graduating from The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in Manhattan, New York City, Glasper was immersed in the traditional and current approaches to jazz making it possible to branch out and incorporate his particular style and background into his music. On Black Radio, the musical variance and ground that is traveled is immense. There is the cover of Mongo Santamaria’s standard “Afro Blue”, in which Erykah Badu’s distinct vocals work perfectly with the smooth groove laid down by the group that is one-part jazz, one-part soul and one-part hip-hop. On “Gonna Be Alright,” Chris Dave lays down a heavily syncopated beat for the band to jam around as Ledisi puts on a vocal clinic as she sings about overcoming life and relationship challenges.

With tracks such as “Letter to Hermione,” “Cherish the Day” and “Ah Yeah” there is an undeniable fusion of musical styles combining jazz, R&B and funk that is simply enjoyable to listen to and makes the body move. At the same time, this fusion takes on much more of a hip-hop feel when Lupe Fiasco and Yasiin Bey come into play on “Always Shine” and “Black Radio”. The versatility and skill of The Robert Glasper Experiment is heard on every track as they provide each guest artist the space to do what they do best and push the boundaries of how we think of them.

When we look back, the influence that jazz, funk, gospel and rock had on hip-hop is undeniable. Sampling these different musical styles was the bread and butter for many producers and gave way to some of the best beats out there. The cool thing about this is that through techniques such as sampling, hip-hop artists have shown how mixing and matching music styles and approaches can lead to innovations that move the art form of creating music forward. Now it is coming full circle as hip-hop and other contemporary music are being used by Glasper and his crew to breathe new life into jazz, taking the music to another place where creativity is unleashed and new unbelievable music is created. On Black Radio, The Robert Glasper Experiment and numerous guest artists are grounded within a jazz structure. However, they branch away from this quickly and often, mixing the introspective, consciousness and revolutionary spirit of hip-hop with the good vibes, gentle melodies and harmony of soul, achieving a sound you won’t  find in much of popular music today. This record is important because it is a testament to what can happen when artists are able to create through collaboration and because quite frankly, it is refreshing.

Daniel’s Thought

Robert Glasper Experiment
Black Radio 2
Blue Note, 2013

How do you take something that has already won accolades and a Grammy and build on top of that? Easy, just do what you’ve been doing, and add in special touches here and there.

Robert Glasper and his Experiment’s award-winning Black Radio was a viable look into what pure musical fusion can create. By mixing jazz, soul, R&B, hip-hop and classical, Black Radio was the formidable face of musical diversity in 2012. It rang with positive collaboration, struck chords in different sectors and blasted its audience with breathtaking covers that could be mistaken as original scripts.

On Black Radio 2, Robert Glasper, Derrick Hodge, Casey Benjamin and Mark Colenburg follow a similar path, but mix it up and present an intimidating sequel to a cultural landmark. Unlike Black Radio, the sequel is almost entirely made of original works, and every track is played live. This feature alone makes the album standout purely because it feels so glued together and yet so free.

“I Stand Alone”, one of the record’s best tracks, has the Experiment fuse hip-hop with pop keys and Common with Patrick Stump of Fall Out Boy. It’s an immediate change from the first Black Radio, and as Common tells stories about growing up in Chicago, Stump backs him with a moving chorus. At the end of the song, Michael Erik Dyson provides an inspiring spoken outro to go along with the coda. “Thank God we’ve still got musicians and thinkers whose obsession with excellence and whose hunger for greatness reminds us that we should all be unsatisfied with mimicking the popular rather than mining fertile minds of creativity.”

On “Let It Ride”, Colenburg delivers a mesmerizing breakbeat snare over fluttering synth layers and Norah Jones’ slippery vocal touch. Played perfectly, the song manages to cut pieces of trance, jazz and pop into a salad of silky sound.

All over Black Radio 2, you’ll find remnants of Black Radio with added touches here and there. Black Radio 2 may even be more daring because of its original work, and it definitely requires more listening. However, the similarity with the first record is what’s most striking: by fusing musical sounds of jazz, hip-hop, soul, pop, rock and even house, the Robert Glasper Experiment is able to hold immense power as far as creativity and storytelling. What’s apparent with Glasper and his crew is that nothing holds them back, and like Dyson said before, they’re literally mining the fertile minds of creativity.

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