Music is a male-dominated industry, from its high-ranking label heads to its flyer toting street team. You see it all the time in hip-hop: When a woman spits formidable rhymes, she’s a dope female emcee. So when there’s a woman in a leading role, especially at the helm of a band, she’s naturally going to stand out. Such is the case for Lakecia Benjamin, a Washington Heights saxophonist whose debut album, Retox, is a multifaceted interpretation of ‘70s funk, ‘90s neo-soul and contemporary r&b. Yet Benjamin proves to be a benevolent director, sometimes relinquishing the spotlight to her colleagues for a well-rounded sound. She did that on purpose. “I was more concerned with doing justice to my compositions than putting a sax solo in every song,” Benjamin writes in her bio. True leadership doesn’t need validation; it resides in the work.
And it’s not like she’s coming out of nowhere. Having played with the likes of Stevie Wonder, The Roots and Alicia Keys, Benjamin already brings a decent pedigree to her eclectic blend of soul music. It’s a resume that informs Retox, even if her influences reach a bit further into the archives. “Keep Talkin’,” with its prominent horn stabs and marching percussion, is vintage Sly and The Family Stone, down to the carbon-copied baritone. The same goes for “Human Being,” a loosely coiled concoction of high-pitched falsettos and wafting electric guitars, except the mood is a bit more subdued than the aforementioned song. “Smile” takes the imitation a step further: It borrows the bass line from Sly’s “You Caught Me Smilin’” and reconfigures it with light horns and subdued drums.
To that end, it’s tough to discern the album’s focus. While it’s noble to honor musical yesteryear, Retox seems to belabor the point with nostalgic jam sessions and quiet storm covers. “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing” is an instrumental interpretation of Stevie’s 1973 hit, and “Maceo” is an upbeat funk groove paying homage to funk saxophonist Maceo Parker. Surely, there’s nothing wrong with the tribute, except it dilutes the epicenter of this set, which is supposed to be the burgeoning Lakecia Benjamin. Though when she asserts her own sound, the results are impressive. “My Love” resonates because of its modesty; a bluesy wash of wah-wah guitars play background to Krystle Warren’s sultry moans. “Dreams” is an atmospheric lullaby of twinkling chimes and fluttering vocals, resting somewhere between ambient electro-soul and acid jazz. All told, Retox is a worthwhile debut for Benjamin, and a welcome addition for those with seasoned palates. Grown folks’ music, for sure.