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Black Radio 2 (2013)

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Derrick Hodge

On Black Radio 2, the Robert Glasper Experiment attempts the near impossible: create a sequel that delivers fully on the promise of its groundbreaking, Grammy-winning predecessor. Glasper's group -- bassist Derrick Hodge, Casey Benjamin on vocoder and synth, and drummer Mark Colenburg -- again enlists a stellar cast of vocalists. Instead of relying on covers, this set is almost entirely comprised of originals. There is an organic feel as well: there are no programmed loops on the record; everything was played live. Standout "I Stand Alone" juxtaposes hip-hop and pop as Common raps about growing up in Chicago, with a sung refrain by fellow Illinoisian Patrick Stump of Fall Out Boy. Michael Erik Dyson adds an inspiring spoken word outro. The set's first single, "Calls," features vocals by Jill Scott. It’s a dreamy, repetitive, nocturnal, neo-soul groover with Glasper's Rhodes and Benjamin's synths sparkling above the clipped rhythm. The RGE weds neo-soul to hip-hop to very fluid jazz on "Worries" with Dwele. The popping snare and toms are accented by Glasper's acoustic piano and a bumping, bubbling bassline from Hodge, as the vocalist alternately sings and raps. Anthony Hamilton offers an exquisite, deeply moving vocal on "Yet to Find," a tune that weds adult contemporary R&B to modern gospel seamlessly and convincingly. Faith Evans underscores the pop/R&B notion on "You Own Me," a track illustrated by Glasper's crystalline middle-register piano, Benjamin's winding, circular synth line, and Colenburg's ticking, in-the-pocket hi-hat. The set's most bracing cut is "Let It Ride." It was written by Glasper and Munsinah, and driven by Colenburg's dazzling breakbeat snare, which is so accurate it could be a loop. It's mixed far above the acoustic piano vamp, an atmospheric Rhodes, layered synths, and a sparse, seductive bassline. Norah Jones' slippery, slurry, vocal phrasing rises over the top, making the track an expansive, syncopated meld of dubstep, jazz, and pop. The set closer is a cover of Stevie Wonder's "Jesus Children." Introduced by the RGE in a nearly modal mélange of acoustic piano, electric bass, and skittering snare, vocalist Lalah Hathaway finds the melody and adds her signature utterance, which is equal parts gospel, old-school soul, and bluesy jazz. She trades verses with Malcolm Jamal Warner, who delivers a searing, spoken tribute to the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, thereby exiting the set on a poignant note. Black Radio 2 is much more subtle than its predecessor. While it's true that it possesses fewer standout performances, it's wholly consistent, and on some level, it's braver for relying on original material to carry it. It requires more listening to appreciate fully. Taken as a whole, however, it serves and fulfills the role of a sequel: the album deepens the band's music-making aesthetic, and further establishes their sound not only as a signature, but even, perhaps, as its own genre. ~ Thom Jurek