Album Review: Tune in Robert Glasper’s « Black Radio III ».
9x Grammy nominated Houston-born pianist, producer and songwriter Robert Glasper releases his much anticipated « Black Radio III« , and it sounds like the future of modern Jazz/hip-hop fusion with contemporary R&B.
Picture this: its’ a post-apocalyptic world and the only modern technology left are radios. Every night, every Black person around the world get together after dinner and tune in a mysterious underground station only they know about. Robert Glapser’s ‘Black Radio III’ is playing. For an hour and seven minutes, all is well in the world.
As February ended, so did Black History month in the United States. Although, there’s a general feeling that this year’s could have been better, we still came through. To mark the occasion, Robert Glasper released the long awaited ‘Black Radio III‘, a 13-track album rich in influences and select features, encompassing his inherent Jazz signature and deep love for his community.
« Don’t mind if I seem a little off-key
or sing a little off-key, but once we’re on keys
we can unlock things » – In Tune (feat. Amir Sulaiman)
What I loved most about this album is the fact that there’s no misconception about what it’s about. From the self-explanatory title card to the last track, it’s not lost on the listener that this body of work is a celebration of Black people and Love. One theme might take more space than the other at times, but almost they’re never separate.
This dynamic is set up organically starting from the first track: ‘In Tune‘ featuring musical poet Amir Sulaiman, whose powerful spoken word delivery is elevated by Robert’s piano keys. It takes form as an invitation to communion amongst your kind through music: « we don’t play music, we pray music« , even if you might « seem a little off-key« or « sing a little off-key« .
These words are repeated throughout the song to express the sentiment that you don’t need to be perfect to be part of your community, you just need to be your unique self. By being just that, you can « lay blueprints at the Blue Note« . This is a reference to Robert Glasper’s musical residency at the Blue Note, one of New York’s most iconic Jazz Club. There’s beauty in being with your own kind because « once we get in tune, we can unlock things« , and even collectively « conduct the cosmos« and help those left behind like the « conductor of the underground railroad« .
This last reference overlaps with another concept very present on the album: the subject of ‘Black Superhero‘, the title of the second track featuring R&B singer and songwriter BJ the Chicago Kid, and Killer Mike, a respected figure of Black American hip hop and a well-known leader of Atlanta City.
« Every block, every hood, every city, every ghetto
need a Black Superhero » -Black Superhero, Killer Mike feat. BJ the Chicago Kid & BIG K.R.I.T
The idea of a Black superhero has been ingrained in Black conciousness as far back as when comics started. But even before that, the concept of the ‘hero’ figure is not foreign to Black Americans. When Amir Sulaiman says « conductor of the underground railroad« in ‘In Tune‘, it’s a reference to Harriet Tubman, a hero of the abolitionist movement. Moreover, the song offers a very important rhyme: « No captain America, no cap in America« to highlight the lack of any inherent good in the nation that oppressed them and continue to do so through police brutality:
« If you’re Black, in a finger snap, fade to Black in America« .
The heroism concept is even better explored on ‘Black Superhero‘, relatively the most important song on the album.
On a 90s type beat, with gospel-like vocals in the background and a catchy hook, Killer Mike, BJ the Chicago Kid and BIG K.R.I.T deliver the necessary urgency for a presence « that’ll shield (you) from them shields that been killing (us)« . More than that, there’s a need for a « type of superhero (that’ll) show up with ain’t no one to call« . One who has « the knowledge to build and grow where they live« , and most importantly « take care of the kids and the older folk« .
There’s also a subtle sense of despair when Killer Mike says « If I was facing death then I could ask one thing of God, I would ask for every n**** to be free here and abroad/ and to be rightfully celebtrated as a child of God« . Black people’s history is a story of pain, division and theft, but it’s only a part of it. The only way to overcome this generational pain is for trust and love to exist:
« We just have to keep the faith and know that, Long as you got mine I got your back » / »It’s gon’ take one of us to save us, it’s gon take love and a lot of trust« .
A positive and uplifting message carried through the following song: ‘Shine‘ featuring Inglewood (California) staples, D.Smoke and Tiffany Gouché.
« I can feel the love in here
My inner space got constellations,
and all those inner conversations, they help me to shine«
-Shine, feat. D. Smoke & Tiffany Gouché
Contrasting with the two previous drum-based gritty sounds, this track is a bright, soulful hip-hop tune, reflecting the power of self-love and positive manifestation: « picture you and me for hours doing whatever we please/ picture giving self-love deeper than the seas, preach.«
With a reference to the gift that was Mrs. Lauryn Hill’s iconic album debut: « picture that brillant sister from Sister Act that gave us miseducation« , and the repetition of « picture me« throughout the song, it almost feel like a commandment to always seek out hapiness despite the circumstances. « Picture me bright, picture me glowing« / « picture me living much better than great« .
If ‘Shine‘ is an invitation for self-love, it’s also a message to always remember who you are, and how much the relationship with the self affect the relationship with others.
The following song, ‘Why we speak‘ is exactly about that.
« We got a long way left to go,
but it’s easier when you know whatever’s alive in you« .
–Why We Speak, feat Q-Tip & Eseranza Spalding.
To carry that message perfectly, Robert Glasper enrolled the legendary Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest, featuring Jazz bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding.
The song , in French and English, stays in the bright tones of the previous song and is a unique take on roots rememberance despite being stripped from it.
« Black consciousness continues to be a transformative part of the life of oppressed populations in the Americas, the Caribbean, and continental Africa. Its form changes and expands with the times. Although it officially took shape in response to racism and oppression, in the processes of these struggles, Africans and their overseas diasporic descendants discovered that their music, their dance, and the spiritual ethos at the core of these forms of expression had the power to transform both their own communities and influence the larger societies in which they exist.« -Robert Glasper
Esperanza’s soft vocals on ‘Why we speak‘ tells us to « se souvenir« , « remember » in French, while Q-Tip iconic tempo takes us through the journey of why. We have to remember « while we speak the English, the French, the Spanish« . We have to remember « not to sell our souls« because « if somebody asks who you are, well, you better know it« . No matter how colonization and slavery has divided Africans over the globe, we can’t forget where we come from.
The fifth track marks a shift in this third volume of Robert Glasper’s Black Radio.
As said earlier, this album is about Black people and Love with and how the overalapping of the two are essential. Up until now, the subject of self-love and being Black has been the focus, but from track 5 towards the end it repositions itself on the theme of romantic love.
This sublte contrast is achieved with the help of acclaimed R&B and neo-Jazz artist Yebba. Her beautiful falsettos fly over Robert’s piano keys, to deliver a hopeful message that « this love ain’t over« .
« Hoping that this love ain’t over
Oh, ’cause I’m tripping over you. » -Over, feat. Yebba
To properly explore the spectrum of love for the rest of his album, the Houston-born producer continues his streak of elite features.
‘Better than I imagined‘ feat. H.E.R and Meshell Ndegeocello is not a track to present anymore. The grammy winning song is a continuation of the mellow R&B choices taken in the precedent Yebba feature, where H.E.R’s vocals tell the story of two imperfect souls made for each other.
The iconic Jennifer Hudson soulfully pitch the realization of being the only one wanting to repair a relationship in ‘Out of my hands‘, while Jazz sensation Gregory Porter and Ledisi say ‘It don’t matter‘.
‘Forever‘, the perfect wedding song is gracefully delivered by New-Orleans musician PJ Morton and the neo-soul queen India Arie, while Ant Clemons’s gorgeous vocals fills up the space with a beautiful pure R&B tune on ‘Heaven’s Here‘.
While the album seem to have done a pure R&B shift from track five, ‘Everybody wants to rule the world‘ featuring Lalah Hathaway and the masterful Common, remind us what the essence of this album is: a perfection fusion of Jazz, hip-hop and R&B.
Up until the 3min 20s of the song, Lalah Hathaway exquisitily sings an R&B remake of Tears for Fear’s iconic hit which bears the same name, then it ups the tempo as Common takes over to tell usus that:
« We need a Black Radio for pure Black music ». -‘Everybody wants to rule the world’, Common
In harmony with the R&B sound of the second half of the album, neo-soul legend Musiq Soulchild and New York rapper Posdnuous gift us a funk anthem with ‘Everybody Love‘, all while reminding us that « your heart is religion and your head is science, but there’s still room for pleasing both sides« .
As much as the slate of featuring artists alongside Robert’s producing skills constitue the strenghts of this album, what that ties it all together to give it a more organic feel are interludes. They are a very small part of albums, but their presence contributes to the full artistic experience and informs more on the song’s meaning.
For instance, Killer Mike’s intermude on ‘Black Superhero‘ allows the listener to understand even better what the song is about. He touches on the negative stereotypes that have affected Black men: « really all those men are god, they’re just living in a reality that tears them down and makes them feel as though they’re not what they actually are« . All while expressing his admiration for Black women : « being clear of all the fact the Black woman is actually the goddess on this planet / the mitochondrial information that’s requisite to create every type of man that exists on this planet is derivative of hers.«
Another interlude that was nice to hear is on ‘Everybody Love‘. We can listen to Robert’s Glasper’s father who is really happy about « all those amazing artists in the lab with« him, and much like any other fan asks about the release of the album.
The album concludes its run on R&B beat with a melancolic piano twist à là Glasper, with ‘Bright Lights‘.
Few artists have successfully mastered hip-hop/Jazz/R&B fusion sounds while staying modern like Robert Glasper has done over the years, and Black Radio III is the proof of that.
You can enjoy Robert Glasper’s excellent ‘Black Radio III‘ here.