During much of the 90’s, the success of R&B was largely dependent on how much alike (and how much of a party atmosphere) it had as opposed to any strong creative activity. Somehow, R. Kelly was one of a few who flourished as a standout artist during this time. That’s because he both resisted the contemporary soul/R&B/funk in its day and embraced it. One thing about this album is that it closed his first decade of recording by embracing the recently revived concept of the double album in the genre. Not only that but is also showed how the modern spirit seemed to resist the impulse of the double album itself.
The double album format was generally presenting a lot of quality music with extended runs. And little to no weak songs. This album might count as a slight revival of the format. Still, this album had many of the pros and cons of it’s era. Across 29 tracks and over two hours, this is probably one of the longest double sets-made for the CD era. Its main flaw was to fill nearly every available moment of space on the CD with music. Also as with all of R.Kelly’s 90’s albums, its uneven. Honestly, this would’ve made an excellent hour long single CD. And still been his best release of the decade.
But the fact it was so uneven was part of it’s charm. What the fairly generic 2-step style hip-hop/R&B (fairly new at the time) lacked in musical innovation they gained on in lyrical content. Songs such as “When A Woman’s Fed Up” and “Down Low Double Life” basically help the listener to understand the place modern women have in their failed relationships with “doggish men”-as R calls them-as well as their partial responsibility.
Musically by far two of the strongest songs here are the first two. “Home Alone” with Keith Murray and “Spendin’ Money”.
The two tunes here featuring Jay Z “We Ride”,”Only Loot Can Make Me Happy” and (to an extent) the Nas duet of “Money Makes The Wold Go ‘Round” all have a stripped down “nu-funk” late 90’s equivalents of the naked funk style. And they built on some thick, phat electric bass and excellent songwriting. There’s also two rather unique songs in the context of this particular album in the mid tempo, wah wah drenched “Suicide”,a scarily cinematic slice of slow funk concerning someone thinking the ending of a relationship as the end of his life.
“Dancing With A Rich Man” brings in light Latin dance ballad rhythm,keeping the “Spanish tinge” introduced from jazz to R&B and onward alive in his music. Of course, there’s also “If I Could Turn Back The Hands Of Time”-a completely Sam Cooke inspired vocal on a 60’s styled soul ballad and the more Motown flavored ballad “What I Feel/Issues” in direct counterpoint to the more obviously adult contemporary “I’m Your Angel” with Celine Dion. And also the addition of the epic gospel soul standard Kelly wrote “I Believe I Can Fly”.
So for sure ‘R’ has its lack of focus. But in addition to allowing his musical unevenness to showcase the dual nature all classic soul artists tend to have, this album also shows how he tends to approach his albums in a similar manner to Persian rugs; he tends to leave one or more musical knot undone and flawed. Jus so the album has no chance of being perfect. It keeps his music human for sure. And sometimes it keeps things from being as good as they could be. No matter how one approaches this, it’s still one of his finest releases.
Calvin Harris is yet another example of a European DJ/producer/multi instrumentalist in the 2010’s who have wound up keeping strong funkiness in their club oriented music. As a matter of fact, many of them (Harris included) have taken many contemporary singer/performer’s along for the ride with them. Hailing from Dumfries, Scotland, Harris is the son of a biochemist. Calvin himself had a very working class trajectory after high school-working odd jobs to buy DJ gear to develop his craft further. By 2011, Harris was working with pop artists such as Rihanna. And had several major albums on his own too.
Last week Harris, whose generally EDM based releases have generally veered about as far as nu disco in the past, released his fifth studio album entitled Funk Wav Bounces Vol.1. It is his first to include no instrumental pieces. And is heavy on collaborations with contemporary singers and rappers. The album first came to my attention riding around town with my mom and hearing the song “Feels” from it on the local new music radio. Very much enjoyed it but upon listening closer, I found Big Sean’s language in it too profane. On the song I’m doing today “Heartstroke”,its a somewhat different story.
A cymbal and jazzy electric piano melody opens the album,with Pharrell Williams deepened voice being soon joined by light percussion and rhythm guitar. When Young Thug’s lead vocals coming,the songs post disco beat and grinding,popping bass line comes in to join it for the first verse of the song. Pharrell joins Young Thug in call and response harmony on the choruses. The song changes octave a bit when Ariana Grande comes in as vocal lead-again duetting with Pharrell. After a bridge with a more sustained synthesizer part, it all fades out on a psychedelic Latin funk wah wah/percussion tone.
What “Heartstroke” actually does musically is very interesting. It showcases the most condensed groove present in the (in its day) somewhat necessitated lower budget of early 80’s post disco/boogie music. Yet it also has some the jazzy electric piano and Brazilian style percussion flavors of late 70’s jazz funk. The type that found its way into Quincy Jones’s late 70’s/early 80’s productions as part of the “LA sound”. Young Thug’s language has its issues here for sure. But he presents it with a Jamaican dancehall style vocal that makes this a strong mixture of older and newer funky musical ideas.
DNCE, a group just introduced to me by my boyfriend Scott, are a never band who are in a somewhat complex musical position. Its a functional band of musicians consisting of bassist/keyboardist Cole Whittle, guitarist JinJoo Lee and drummer/percussionist Jack Lawless. Its lead singer is Joe Jonas,a member of the Disney based family pop/rock band The Jonas Brothers. Of course,JinJoo Lee was a member of Cee-Lo Green’s touring band in the early 2010’s. Whittle describes DNCE’s sound as being like funk and disco hits played by a good garage band. And of course,they have their influences.
70’s and 80’s funk,pop and disco of the likes of EWF,The Bee Gee’s,ELO,Hall & Oates and Prince. They also site 90’s alternative band Weezer as an influence as well. Having heard several songs from their self titled debut from 2016, this is obviously a very diverse band. And vocally,they have their modern pop ethic down pat. Still they have a strong love of a strong groove with a strong melody. There were several songs that stood out on the album for Scott and myself. The one that stood out most for me personally was basically the album and bands self titled theme song.
An acapella chant of the groups name starts out the song-just before a tougher vocal grunt gets the main melody going. Its a thick,slow drum accented by shuffling percussion. The rhythm guitar/slapping bass interaction has a rolling thickness. And the lead synthesizer plays a bright “church style” melody. On the third chorus of the song, horns (or at least horn samples come in) come into accent the melody-with each choral bridge having a a chugging guitar and percussion sound. The bridge breaks it all down to the drums,bass,horns and vocals before the chorus repeats to its abrupt final curtain.
“DNCE” is a groove that has a lot going on in it. There’s a little bit of the Bee Gee’s “Jive Talkin'”,and the use of Prince style synthesizers to create gospel oriented melodic chords. The band are a very talented quartet. Counter to what I hear in much pop music of the 2010’s,everything on this song makes distinct musical statements. And every one of them come from the roots of the soul/funk/disco dance persuasion. The surface melodies are very strong and prominent. But the bottom has a thickness too. Should DNCE continue in this direction,they will be a nu funk to watch for more from.
Jamiroquai were a band who,two decades ago now,were the musical lifeblood of my personal interest in funk and disco. Its a story that’s been told on this blog at least once. They’ve had their lineup changes over the years for sure. Even still over the years,their mid to late 90’s albums are ones that I still continue to return to many times. As a matter of fact,they tend to define how how I view the contemporary nu funk movement as a whole. That being said,never been one to give into blind idolatry of any musical figure either. And Jamiroquai have been no exception to that rule.
Following their (unintended) 9/11 release of A Funk Odyssey, Jamiroquai album releases became less and less frequent. Albums such as 2005’s Dynamite were promoted with the over modulated hip-hop influenced single “Feels Just Like It Should”. And with their 2008 album Rock Dust Light Star fading seemingly as quick as it came, Jamiroquai seemed to have faded into the annals of the past. Early this year,they announced the release of their 8th studio album Automaton. The title track was released first. But this EDM influenced song didn’t speak so much to me as the newest lead off single from the album “Cloud Nine”.
A deep piano chord,an ethereal synth and vocal pulse provide the intro to the song. A string burst opens into the refrain of the song. This consists of a thick disco beat-with a polyphonic synth playing the lead melody. And assisted by a pulsing rhythm guitar and bubbling synth bass line playing the higher ends of the changes. The rhythm guitar and bubbling bass are higher in the mix on the choruses-along with the string burst that leads into the heavily echoed bass/synth line on the bridge. The refrain and chorus are lightly improvised upon until it fades-accompanied by a jazzy synth solo before it ends.
“Cloud 9”, as far as I’m concerned ,is Jamiroquai’s strongest single since “Little L” came out 16 years ago. It showcases the band moving in their own career arc much the same as funk did during its first generation. Much as Jamiroquai were a live percussion/horn based jazz/funk band with extended jams and instrumentals when they started out,they are now a post disco/boogie funk group with strong jazz/funk melodic influences by the time their 8th album is about to drop. Only the future can tell if Jamiroquai’s future is going to remain in this strong progression. But “Cloud 9” is an excellent step in this direction.
Thundercat (born 1984 in LA as Stephan Bruner) is an artist I’ve wanted to profile for quite some sometime now. He’s had a very diverse career as a bass/guitar player. He began in the thrash metal band Suicidal Tendencies. As well as working close to nu jazz mainstay Flying Lotus. On his own,he has brought his talents to a diverse range of artists from Kamasi Washington,Erykah Badu and Kendrick Lamar. He began his solo career in 2011. While it maintains his diversity of sound to a degree,his focus has tended to be on the modern nu jazz/funk approach in terms of his own material.
The only Thundercat solo album I have is 2013’s Apocalypse. Its mix of electronica and jazz/funk was a very moving one. Cannot honestly say I was too crazy about all of his lyrics. And that is the main reason I’ve avoided covering the music of this child prodigy up until this point. Just a personal preference that funky music be a very complete package. That being said,he is about to drop a new album called Drunk. And his first song released from this album was introduced to me both by friends Andrew Osterov and Henrique Hopkins. Its a duet with Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins called “Show Me The Way”.
A processed Fender Rhodes piano,with Thundercat’s bass line tickling the chord changes next to his falsetto voice,opens the song before the drum-itself a three snare/two cymbal hit,comes in. During the choruses of the song,the Rhodes is phasered very heavily with a twinkling high pitched synthesizer. On the refrains,the arrangement calms down to a meditative soft jazz/funk/pop Rhodes and bass line. On two of these refrains,McDonald’s and Loggins’ vocal parts are introduced by Thundercat and light applause noise. The synthesizer/Rhodes duet improvises its way all the way to the songs fade.
“Show Me The Way” is an excellent tribute to the reality of the “soft rock” or “yacht rock” label often disguising strong jazzy funk/pop artists-that “funk/soul in every section of the record store”. Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald were prime examples of this ethic. Thundercat clearly understands how to compose such melodic and instrumentally intricate jazzy/pop/soul tunes with a strong funky groove as they did in their time. This mid tempo number features a lot of elaborate melodic improvisations-always very hummable. And is a superb comeback for all three artists involved for 2017!
Alicia Keys is an artist whom myself and Henrique both have similar thoughts on. Both of us agree that she possesses the musical talent and understanding to be a major soul/funk/ jazz force for the new millennium. That being said,her albums have generally focused on instrumentally dressed up pop piano ballads-with simplistic notes that (quite frankly) do disservice to Keys’ musical abilities. Since this is such a common approach now with artists such as Sam Smith,Adele and John Legend,it even came as a surprise to me that on her November 2016 album release HERE,Alicia Keys musical vision has begun to change.
One of the first steps towards this change was Alicia Keys decision to not wear makeup for the time being. She saw the focus on the affectations of her appearance as getting in the way of her musical talent. As a natural beauty both without and (most importantly) within, Keys’ choice is a very admirable one. This year,with the Knowles sisters Beyonce and Solange both making powerful pro black album statements,Keys made a comeback with a very similar vibe to it overall. Generally a rather stripped down jazzy album, HERE is also home to a very powerful opening song called “The Gospel”.
Keys starts singing to a piano riff that,while playing in the European classical meter,is deep in the blues pentatonic scale. She adds some honky tonk style reverb when the drums kick in. These drums are mixed somewhat higher than the piano-playing a very strident march. Keys sings the song in a fast,modern rap type rhythmic style. On the refrains,she chants “yeah yeah yeah” in the gospel soul style similar to the vocal harmonies on Funkadelic’s 1971 groove “You And Your Folks,Me And My Folks”. This is the pattern within the song that repeats until fade out.
“The Gospel” is a tense,brittle song. And its about tense times. Musically,its very much like a modern early 70’s funky soul inspired hip-hop record-especially with it being based around a pounding,extended vamp. Lyrically,its very much of a revisit of similar themes to Stevie Wonder’s “Living For The City”. Since this is not an instrumental opus with many complex parts,it focuses on a lyrical setup that doesn’t so much offer hope. But rather it paints a picture of lower class black life and a call to protest-asking “if you ain’t in the battle,how you gon’ win the fight?”. This makes it a very different type of Alicia Keys song.
Chris Jasper,a cousin of the Isley family,was a key member of the Isley Brothers 3+3 era lineup. And later the core of the mid/late 80’s spin off group Isley-Jasper-Isley,who are best known for their song “Caravan Of Love”. Jasper is a classically trained player who went began playing at the age of 7. And later attended Julliard. He graduated with a BA of fine arts in music under the tutelege of jazz icon Billy Taylor. And so I’ve recently learned,earned a Juris Doctorate degree from the Concord University School of Law. This broad academic back round helped his career in more ways than one.
As a member of the Isley Brothers in the 70’s and 80’s,his textural mix of filtered synthesizers and bass tones created a distinctive electronic funk backdrop for their music at the time. This sound would be influential on the boogie/electro funk sound of the 80’s. He carried that sound into that decade too,both with the Isley’s and his later solo work. In more recent years,his legal experience likely helped a great deal in launching his custom label Gold City Records. Of his own work on this label are albums such as 2010’s Everything I Do and the song I’ll be discussing today called “Don’t Take Your Love Away”.
The song kicks off with the digitized Afro Caribbean rhythm that defines the entire song. Its main melody consists of a few layers high pitched synthesizers changing chords,while Jaspers trademark melodic synth bass takes care of the songs low end. Jasper’s voice passionately places itself into the phat array of sounds this mix creates. Along with this is a Clavinet/guitar type keyboard riff. Each chorus is buffeted by an interlude taken in a somewhat different (and more minor) key. One such interlude represents the bridge of the song as an instrumental as the song fades out on its own repeated chorus.
Musically “Don’t Take Your Love From Me” is right in the vein of Jasper’s solo work and that with Isley-Jasper-Isley. So much so it could’ve easily been recorded in that decade. The polyrhythmic sound of the song and its melody is very much in the vein of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” or Midnight Star’s far lesser known album track “Feels So Good”. Neither were slow jams,but were both somewhat more stripped down and seemed like it as a result. Jasper’s rugged layers of synthesizer really bring out the uptempo and brightly melodic nature of this electro/synth funk song very well.
2016 as a year in music is something I’ve been contemplating doing since the year began. One of my personal missions with Andresmusictalk is to input something positive about music,the people who create it and its influence on everyday life. There’s already enough of the “meat and potatoes ONLY” news out where their is importance for well rounded discourse. One thing readers of this blog might’ve noticed is the general lack of commentary on new funk/soul records this year. Just under a handful in fact. And the reason for that is that 2016 is a year marked by death.
The first day of the year didn’t exactly begin with a fresh start. It began with the news of Natalie Cole’s passing. It was just a week or so later that David Bowie passed away. A few weeks after that,EWF founder Maurice White. Then in April,very surprisingly,we lost Prince. It came to a point on this blog where I wasn’t actually preparing to write up on a new song. But was gearing up for the next tribute to a fallen musical icon. While it was a great honor to have lived with the music of these people for years,as well as pay tribute to them,the heavy concentration of death in under a years time even was formidable.
As for the new music coming out this year? With a few exceptions from Bruno Mars and Childish Gambino,there wasn’t a whole lot of funky,soulful music. Or songs with anything hugely positive to say. So its been a year that this blog has mainly paid tribute to the classics. And the people who created them,many of whom are gone now. So even though its not a huge list,here are some some of the albums that personally moved me in that funky and/or soulful way from 2016. I will also try to put them into some type of resonant category so people will catch onto the general “vibe” of each album:
THE JAZZY SIDE
Robert Glasper-Everything’s Beautiful
SOULFULLY FORWARD THINKING
Solange-A Seat At The Table
ELECTRO NU FUNK
Childish Gambino-Awaken My Love
Most people I’ve talked to have admitted freely that 2016 has been an extremely rough year. There was a traumatic election in America on top of all the death. As for the year to come,there’s no way of knowing who will pass away and when. That might come to a halt in 2017. Hope it does. As for the political trauma,that appears to be the most frightening concern at the moment. My one wish for 2017 and the “undiscovered country” to come after that is that the albums demonstrated here will prove a guiding musical light that will define what America’s people will be seeking-with its grooves and messages.
Bobby Caldwell is someone whom I’ve tended to view as a artists musician and something of the epidome of what they often call “grown folks music” these days. Another native New Yorker deep into jazz and classic pop/rock,Caldwell found musical homes in both Memphis and Miami. These cities are strong musical melting pots in and of themselves. Having myself recently dug right into his late 70’s/early 80’s albums,Caldwell has revealed himself to something of a solo multi instrumentalist Steely Dan musically. Only with rather more emotionally earnest and romantic lyrical content.
Caldwell’s West Coast style jazzy funk sound is best known to most through 1977’s “What You Won’t Do For Love”. Recently,Caldwell met up with producer Jack Splash while on tour-which Caldwell does frequently while also recording fairly consistently. Splash has been noted for his retro styled productions with folks such as Alicia Keys,Mayer Hawthorne,Cee Lo Green and many other similar artists in the neo soul/electro funk vein. Last year he and Caldwell collaborated on a project entitled Cool Uncle. One song that got my attention from this strong album is called “Never Knew Love Before”.
A thick,funky drum begins the song starts the song with pounding,right in the Afro Latin clave percussion. A slap bass brings in two different keyboard lines. One is a brittle synthesizer line playing the chord changes,and a splinkling electric piano plays the main melody somewhat in the back round. The drumming solos for a moment before the chorus comes in,which in turn adds a sustained slap bass line to the keyboards,drums and percussion. Breezy accenting horn charts (or samples-difficult for me to tell) play along with the song until the electric piano and sustained cymbal closes the it all out.
Caldwell’s talents as a multi instrumentalist are at top form on this song. One thing this song totally brings out about Caldwell’s talent is that he doesn’t write simplistic songs on any level. The boogie/electro funk has modern instrumental sounds for sure. Yet the entire musical content is hard core 80’s funkiness. Also its a song that celebrates arrangements. In a day and age where a lot of contemporary R&B songs have three or four basic chords, Caldwell delivers refrains,choruses and bridges with strong melodic differences. This really makes “Never Knew Love Before” stand out all the stronger as top notch nu funk.
Filed under 2015, Bobby Caldwell, Boogie Funk, drums, elecro funk, electric piano, horns, Jack Splash, jazz funk, multi instrumentalists, Nu Funk, percussion, slap bass, synthesizers