The opening track on Robert Glasper’s new album, Black Radio III, is called In Tune and it features the poet Amir Sulaiman reciting in spoken-word style his moving poem on how racism is intertwined into the consciousness of much of America. And of how music provides the opportunity to enjoy a sort of freedom. It’s a stunning track with Sulaiman’s powerful words backed by Glasper’s piano, a low-key bass clarinet and a trumpet.
It sets the stage for the rest of the album, 13 tracks each featuring what you could call the A-list of contemporary black musicians drawn from genres ranging from R&B, hip-hop, jazz, and soul. It’s a project that embodies an urgent commentary on the theme of black consciousness in a world discrimination and prejudice are more visible and potent than ever before. But it also celebrates black consciousness and pride.
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Glasper, 43, has won four Grammys, and is probably among the few living musicians (he is a pianist, composer and producer) to be able to effortlessly traverse between genres, synthesising different styles smoothly to create music that is difficult to define but easy to become addicted to. The musicians featured on Black Radio III include rappers Killer Mike and Q-Tip; bassists and singers Esperanza Spalding and Meshell Ndegeocello; jazz, soul and gospel vocalist Gregory Porter; singers Lalah Hathaway and Jennifer Hudson, and many others.
It’s been nine years since Glasper released Black Radio II, which was preceded by Black Radio, both albums featuring a host of guest musicians as the new album does. But it is the sense of urgency that sets the third album apart. The fact that the album’s tracks jump from genre to genre but also often merge them—say jazz with hip-hop or soul—makes it at once a compelling yet complex album. It can be unsettling sometimes to listen to tracks that begin, say, as hip-hop songs and then morph into jazz sequences but when you get into the flow of the album, it is difficult to extricate yourself.
On Black Superhero, Killer Mike, Big K.R.I.T and others sing, “Every block, every hood, every city, every ghetto (up in the sky)/ Need a Black superhero (it's a bird)/ Every block, every hood, every city, every ghetto (it's a plane)/ Need a Black superhero,” but as the rapping ends, there is a short monologue on how the only living god on the planet is the black woman. On Why We Speak, Esperanza Spalding sings exquisitely in French and plays the bass but then towards the middle of the track we hear Q-Tip singing in English. “Se souvenir - While we speak the English, “ goes the chorus, “Se souvenir - While we speak the French/ Se souvenir - While we speak the Spanish/ Se souvenir - And bargain with the vendors/ Se souvenir - Not to sell our souls/ Se souvenir - In between, remember how to speak.” It is one of the standout tracks of the album.
On the slowed-down cover of the Tears for Fears’ song Everybody Wants To Rule the World, the singer Lalah Hathaway and the rapper Common transform the well-known tune into something that is unexpected but also enjoyable. Black Radio III is full of surprises. You can find hip-hop morphing into soul; and jazz meeting R&B. Sometimes all of that in the same song. In an interview with the global music streaming platform, Tidal, Glasper explained how Black Radio III differed from the previous two similarly themed albums (Black Radio and Black Radio II): “When I made Black Radio one and two, that was on the heels of Obama…
And then making this was at the end of Trump, so it’s a different, different vibe out there. And with everything going on, with the police shootings and George Floyd and you name it, everything, so many things are happening. As an artist, when these things are happening, you have a choice to make: It’s like, do I make an album and really address this stuff?”
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Glasper chose to do exactly that. With the world ravaged by the Covid pandemic and in-person collaboration being difficult, he built a small studio in the back of his home and traded sound files with the list of collaborators featured on the album. Clearly, making an album that is as complex and multi-genre as Black Radio III is and with so many musicians not being able to record together was not easy but Glasper has pulled off the ambitious project. Already, one of the tracks, Better Than I Imagined, which was released as a single last year and features Ndegeocello and the R&B singer, H.E.R., has won a Grammy for best R&B Song.
Musicians such as those who have collaborated on Black Radio III straddle different styles and genres but with the album, Glasper has once again proven how masterful he is at synthesising types of music that can otherwise be so disparate.
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