Robert Glasper is a rare jazz musician in many ways. For one, he’s arguably the most gifted pianist to hit the scene in the 21st century. His early-’00s work -- whether it was with his peers on the Fresh Sound label or as part of the rhythm sections for luminaries like Kenny Garrett or Terence Blanchard -- identified him as a precocious talent with athletic hands and a heavy ear. By the second half of the decade, however, he was branching out, sticking reprised J Dilla interludes on his solo albums and working with black music’s creative class (Badu, Q-Tip, Common, Bilal, Meshell Ndgeocello, The Roots). He was that rare jazz artist that had a profile in popular music (and we use “popular” in a relative sense). If you caught The Robert Glasper Experiment live, it was that jazz-based show that featured a crowd not dominated by middle-aged white people.
By the time he released 2012’s Black Radio, he had the connections to call-in favors from numerous Generation X, “adult contemporary” artists. The album won the Grammy for Best R&B Album earlier this year. And it seemed clear that Glas’ was on his way to becoming his generation’s Herbie Hancock in both skill and appeal.
A year later, perhaps sensing his moment, Glasper released the Black Radio sequel last month. Inclined to give him a pass on the first BR -- it being his first full-fledged foray into a non-jazz idiom -- I’m not letting him off the hook for this one.
Quite simply, Black Radio 2 is among the most cliched, boring albums I heard in 2013. It’s montage music is meant for overwrought Tyler Perry films and the like.
The intro, like the first Black Radio, features a coda where all the album’s participants swoop in for a short riff. Imagine a title character (let’s call him Clyde Kline) -- tasked with reviving an inner-city school’s famed, but dormant gospel choir using a group of at-risk teens -- walking into an auditorium, saying, “Ok, gimme what you got.” And then the camera pans to each youngster as they belt out soul. Cue Clyde’s knowing smirk. Riff Perfect, coming to a theater near you.
It’s all mostly downhill from there.
“I Stand Alone”’s cosmic reason for existing is to back a montage where an ex-convict hits the books hard -- while also working as a laborer -- to get his college degree. No one gave him a chance. He’s doing it not only to win back his estranged wife and kids, but also for self-improvement.
Brandy’s on this album? Oh, no doubt. “What Are We Doing” is what you’d hear when watching a scene of a ravaged neighborhood coming together to rebuild a church or long-standing diner that grounded an increasingly unstable community. Everyone gets involved, even the thugs that got into it with the septuagenarian owner, because he didn’t want them “pushing that dope near my property.”
You know that typical montage that shows a beaten down woman enjoying the replenishing love of a new man she initially rebuffed because she judged his book by the cover? That’s what “Calls”, featuring Jill Scott, is for.
After hearing “Yet To Find," it’s clear that there’s no reason why Anthony Hamilton and Tyler Perry shouldn’t get there Spike Lee/Terence Blanchard on.
We could go on and on. The album does not stop dispensing corn, but for a few spots here and there. It all leads up to “Jesus Children of America” (a supposed update of Stevie Wonder’s original on Innervisions). The song ends with Theo Huxtable spitting spoken word prose. ‘Nuff said, right?
In an interview with Essence , Glasper explained the Black Radio concept: “A lot of music is crashing and burning around us. But I believe music will survive the fire, just like the black box on an airplane. Good music always prevails.”
Except this album is only “good music” if you say it with air quotes. It’s “good music” in that it’s well made by talented artists and the subject matter is “uplifting” and “mature” -- both words also in air quotes. But this album has no vitality, no new ideas. It takes no risks.
The Los Angeles Times quotes Glasper mocking traditionalists at a concert last week. “Creative black people? We can’t have that,” he said sarcastically.
But what exactly is so creative about an album that you could play right beside a new Babyface album, or that’s best described as montage music? There has been aggressively creative soul music that dropped this year. Some via youngsters (The Internet), some via stalwarts (Bilal’s A Love Surreal), some via foreigners (Hiatus Kaiyote of Australia). Let’s hope Glasper takes cues from that work before he drops Black Radio 3.