A remix project better than the record it's remixing, featuring 9th Wonder, Pete Rock, the Roots, and more
Robert Glasper's 2007 album, In My Element, was released at the same time as jazz crank Wynton Marsalis' response to hip-hop's perceived decadence, From the Plantation to the Penitentiary. While Marsalis made a whole, tell-not-show album about how evil rap music is, Glasper mixed his elegant post-bop jazz style with samples, Dilla tributes, and Mecca & the Soul Brother-style interludes, making a case for rap's experimental, grab-from-anywhere appeal.
2009's follow-up, Double Booked, found Glasper injecting hip-hop and R&B into his jazz, splitting the album between songs featuring a traditionalist trio and a more fusion-oriented band, the Robert Glasper Experience. Glasper also toured with Maxwell and Mos Def, played on Q-Tip's The Renaissance, and did an infamous-to-those-who-care show at the Blue Note in New York last year that featured Kanye freestyling over Glasper's improv.
The result of this rising profile was Black Radio, from earlier this year. A more direct flirtation with hip-hop, the album featured raps from Mos Def and Lupe Fiasco, and vocals from Erykah Badu, Bilal, Chrisette Michele, and Meshell Ndegeocello. There are some inspired moments, for sure, but it's ultimately an NPR-ish jazz record with a touch of rap, as safe as those guest spots might suggest. It just didn't work.
When Glasper approaches jazz with hip-hop's creative spirit in mind, he's far more effective. In My Element's smarty-pants mash-up of Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage" and Radiohead's "Everything in Its Right Place" felt more hip-hop than the Lupe-featured "Always Shine" off Black Radio. And the best songs on Black Radio — save for an urgent, rap-scat ramble from Mos Def on the title track — are the ones that don't much connect to rap: A vibrating vocoder version of Sade's "Cherish The Day" and a Monk-by-way-of-Mehldau piano cover of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Glasper's in-the-pocket, genre-folding experimental jazz was far more of an affront to jazz fans and hip-hop heads than Black Radio's considered fusion.
But now, thankfully, we have a remix EP, featuring 9th Wonder, Pete Rock, Georgia Anne Muldrow, and Glasper himself toying with tracks from Black Radio. None of the remixes radically rip apart the originals, but they improve upon them by not playing it so safe. The Mos Def-featured title track now gets the Pete Rock soul-filter treatment, while Georgia Anne Muldrow smears some Funkadelic-tinged soul-splat all over the much too cool, calm, and collected "Consequence Of Jealousy." Raps from Phonte, who appears on 9th Wonder's fogging-up of "Afro Blue," and Black Milk, who adds a broken-hearted verse to Glasper's nervous film-noir refix of his own "Letters To Hermione," find jazz and rap in conversation, not just talking at one another.
Black Radio Recovered's highlights, though, are not remixes. They're two entirely new songs allowed to wander and get weird, because they're protected by the pretense that this is a remix EP, where anything goes. The EP ends with, "Dillalude #2," Glasper's sequel to In My Element's "Dillalude," which approached some iconic J. Dilla beats like they were jazz standards ready to be riffed on. This time, Glasper's group takes hold of the legendary producer's Giorgio Moroder ode "E=MC2," and super-sweet, Bobby Caldwell-sampling boho love song, "The Light" from Common. For nine minutes, Glasper and his band investigate these Dilla beats-turned-compositions, figuring out every stuttering melody and off-kilter drum pattern, not only paying tribute to the late beatmaker's chops, but to his obsessive ear, which mined every second of a potential sample for hot sounds.
Then, there's the Roots and Solange Knowles performing a jazz-rap, neo-soul, neo-classical, murk-funk cover of Little Dragon's "Think" (a song Glasper has taken to covering live). "Twice (?uestlove’s Twice Baked Remix)" is Ornette Coleman's Skies Of America avant-orchestration and Steve Miller Band's "Macho City" ambience that slowly disintegrates, only to return as a mournful swell of maudlin strings, swinging back and forth. The last three minutes of "Twice" (a remix of a live cover that hasn't been officially recorded) is the most melancholy piece of music I've heard this year.
This truly "out" moment of Black Radio Recovered recalls that time in the mid-'90s when record labels had money to spend, and space on maxi-singles and 12-inches to fill, and gave remixers free reign. Think Beck getting Aphex Twin to remix “Devil's Haircut” or the Beastie Boys, GZA, and Prince Paul mucking up some Jon Spencer Blues Explosion tracks. It's that level of ambitious and WTF-worthy. Appropriately titled, Black Radio Recovered revamps all the Grammy-grabbing flaws of Black Radio.