Pianist Robert Glasper is rather young by the standards of jazz music and his cross-generational appeal has made him a natural fan favorite. And over the last four albums he has undoubtedly attracted many new fans to the genre with his ability to blend multiple styles within his jazz framework.
For Glasper’s fifth album, Black Radio, he plays with the concept of the black box. In a plane crash, the black box is said to be the only thing that survives. Using that very idea as a metaphor and concept for your album could say a lot of things: the album will stand the test of time, or at the end of the day (and our musical lives) this album will still be around and relevant. In the case of Glasper’s album, the black box fittingly becomes a radio.
Glasper and Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) played around with the concept of the album title for two years and that alone speaks volumes about the vision of the album. With this project The Robert Glasper Experiment (Chris Dave, Casey Benjamin and Derrick Hodge) takes a detour from all that’s popular to create a project that has more hip-hop, soul, and rock undertones than albums prior. On board to help RGE realize that diverse vision is an A-list roster of collaborators including: Bilal, Lalah Hathaway, Lupe Fiasco and and more–each of whom add a level of depth to the album. The end result is a beautiful and refreshing piece of work.
Though great from start to finish, there are certain standout tracks on the album, beginning with the introduction of the hip-hop element in the form of “Lift Off,” featuring Shafiq Husayn. This track gives listeners the guide needed for the rest of the album, “You’ll need only two things to direct your course—your ears and your soul.” “Afro Blue,” featuring Erykah Badu follows “Lift Off,” which was one of the first leaks from the album. The song was originally composed by Mongo Santamaria and made famous by John Coltrane. Glasper’s update adds a neo-soul vibe, which allows Badu’s vocals to float effortlessly on the track.
“Always Shine,” featuring Lupe Fiasco and Bilal, makes for a very interesting collaboration. The track opens with a gospel-infused piano intro and the mesh of the two on the track—Bilal who is a frequent collaborator (“All Matter”) and Fiasco who wanted to collaborate with Glasper, make for a rather impressive track. Bilal’s voice on the song, in particular the chorus, is beautiful, and lyrically Fiasco comes with it: “In the event of my demise, give everything I prize to the poor / And to the oppressors, I leave a war.”
The harmony that begins on “Move Love” (featuring KING) makes for a perfect album highlight and a great lead-in to “Ah Yeah,” featuring Musiq Soulchild and Chrisette Michele. This duet brings the necessary romance to the album, drenching the listener with lovely lyrics and neo-soul vibe, not to mention Glasper’s piano presence. Initially, this track was only going to feature Soulchild, but due to Michele’s canceled flight, Glasper was able to get her on the song which made for an ideal collaboration. From the beginning of the track, Soulchild’s beautiful lyrics will definitely pluck the heart strings of all female listeners: “I think beauty’s overrated because it’s something anyone can be/ Attraction now that’s something different, and thankfully you’re both to me.” And the way the piano echoes at the end of the track only adds to the overall quality of the track.
“Why Do We Try,” featuring Stokley Williams of Mint Condition, includes lovely vocals over the consistent drumming and powerful piano keys. Out of all the tracks on the album, this one appears to be one of the most organic and least calculated. The title track, “Black Radio,” featuring Yasiin, proves to be the most energetic track on the album and solidly carries the weight a title track should. The album also features three covers- “Cherish The Day” featuring Lalah Hathaway, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Letter to Hermione” featuring Bilal. RGE’s reworking of these songs create a new sound, however, keep only the essence of the original tracks.
In short, Glasper managed to create a beautiful album from start to finish that will easily be added into conversations with greats like John Coltrane’s Blue Train.
– Erin Duncan