CD Review: "Black Radio 2" by the Robert Glasper Experiment

Oftentimes people ask for change, but then find themselves disgusted when it doesn't come in familiar packaging. This sentiment holds true in regards to how jazz’s traditionalists have chosen to react to Robert Glasper, specifically his newly released project Black Radio 2. Whether it is sought or simply happened upon, change can be thought of as atmosphere. It’s a presence that cannot be ignored nor denied – merely dealt with. When Wynton Marsalis told the Akron Beacon-Journal in June, responding to a question about Glasper’s recent Grammy win, that “I don’t think the art form is going to receive anything by being R&B,” he echoed a common reaction amongst a sector of traditionalists within the jazz community. In contrast, I hear Black Radio’s sound as tapping into a refreshing vein of creativity. Glasper is not trying to simply braid jazz and R & B’s aesthetic together. Quite the contrary: he has laid the gauntlet down, challenging us to hear the myriad of possibilities within soul, hip hop and R & B by re-envisioning them from his own consciousness.  Jazz just so happens to one of the sounds that have influenced his development up to this point.

Indeed, the narrative emerging from Jazz's conservative nook is quite familiar---and, dare I say, predictable. “It don’t swing,” they cry. Without hesitation, the dreaded label “smooth jazz” is callously affixed; this is a dismissive gesture meant to disregard any sound that exists outside of the traditionalist’s ability and or desire to embrace something new. This line of thinking – brazen in execution yet limited in vision – has situated jazz as an expression of the privileged as opposed a possession of the people. Simply put, jazz seems to be on a suicide mission, content with becoming the soundtrack for catacombs.

Miles Davis warned of this when he said, “I never thought Jazz was meant to be a museum piece like other dead things once considered artistic.” Black Radio 2 is born out of this idea. It is a waypoint in Glasper’s sojourn, which aims to open the doors of the establishment’s ivory tower while expelling those who have escaped significance by taking up refuge within its walls. Sitting down with the New York Daily News, Glasper spoke to this idea, saying, “The jazz world in general has a problem with not being seen as relevant. But how can you complain when you aren’t doing anything to make yourself relevant?” Undoubtedly, Black Radio 2 is born out of Glasper’s desire to realign and cement his creativity with relevancy. It is not merely a pivot from his previous album; it is a complete departure, prevalently showcasing subtleties of the contemporary soundscape. Speaking with Texas Monthly, Glasper acknowledged, “It’s a straight up R & B album. This is not even a jazz meets whatever record.”

The album is overflowing with original compositions. Each one is an icon of groove inspired nostalgia. Tracks such as “I Stand Alone” speak to anxieties and rewards that come from pushing past the marginal confines of sameness and predictability. Featuring Chicago emcee Common and Fall Out Boy frontman Patrick Stump, the song is an expression of unapologetic and unwavering resilience in the face of apprehension. The subsequent track, “What’re We Doing,” is an exhibition of the importance of the pocket and the possibilities that can emerge from it. Glasper and the Experiment manifest a head-nodding soundscape. From this groove-fertilized terrain, songstress Brandy Norwood blossoms, channeling black music’s most celebrated sirens. The lone cover on the album is Stevie Wonder’s “Jesus Children of America.” Sung by Lalah Hathaway, daughter of the musical genius Donny Hathaway, the selection is a visitation into the muted moments of nostalgia that exist within our musical memory.

These selections exemplify why I celebrate Black Radio and Black Radio 2. This album represents an exciting sound that is being brought to the attention of all who exist outside of jazz’s bubble. Indeed, it is a movement: one that pushes back against the idea that hipness is achieved by cementing oneself within yesteryear’s cool. We are witnessing an insurgency – a mass of “creatives” who are on a mission to acquaint our ears with a new negotiation of sound. For jazz aficionados, Glasper is showing what the music can do when freed from genre-based expectations. For everybody else, Glasper is introducing listeners to the jazz world’s sonic reality while breaking down its air of exclusivity. The Experiment are exposing what has been happening in jam sessions for years – a departure from a codified and played-out mindset in favor of a modernistic modus operandi. Simply put, Glasper, the Experiment and others like them are braiding the sound of radio – the sound of black radio - within jazz’s lexicon.

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Wade Fulton Dean is a PhD student in Musicology at UCLA. He is an active jazz saxophonist, educator and community activist.

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