Reflecting on ‘Faith’ and when having it ‘Bad’ was good

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It’s amazing how music will stir a memory inside of you that hasn’t crossed your mind in years. I was grooving to Faith Evans’ debut a while back and began reminiscing about the days of old that were my high school years. I must say it’s funny how time flies.

Picture it: Hampton, Virginia, August 1995.

Hot on the heels of getting my driver’s license, I hopped into Dad’s big ol’ Buick Regal on a thick, sticky afternoon and headed over to the Musicland store that would soon be my first employer on a mission. The hottest new chick in the game had just dropped her first album, a collection that left all of us abuzz about “the girl who sounds like Mary.” I walked through the door and there it was, prominently displayed with the new releases. Just a few moments later, “Faith” was on its way home with me.

Mission accomplished.

Like most black folks in my age bracket, Bad Boy Entertainment provided the soundtrack to my angst-ridden teen existence. Musically there was no time like the mid-’90s, and a lot of the credit for that belongs to the house that Sean Combs built. The round of debut albums that emerged in Bad Boy’s golden era – Craig Mack’s “Project: Funk da World,” “112,” “Total,” Biggie’s “Ready to Die” and “Faith” – are some of the greatest R&B and hip-hop records of the last two decades. (Mase’s “Harlem World” came a bit later, but deserves a mention too.) A mix of glossy, sample-sprinkled beats, infectious hooks and New York City attitude, the label’s output was the musical equivalent of a Molotov cocktail, lighting fires in street kids and suburbanites struck by their potency. When a Bad Boy record came on at a party or dance, for one moment in time, everybody was riding in the same lane.

Faith’s style was an excellent vehicle for the label’s reach and range, and it wasn’t surprising that her debut won pretty much everybody over immediately. Much like Mary J. Blige, her synthesis of hip-hop and soul was pretty universal: The young, the old, the female, the male, the hood and the high-end loved this album. There was a little something there for everybody. From the hard edge of her first single “You Used to Love Me” to the Quiet Storm leanings of “Soon As I Get Home,” there really wasn’t too much this girl couldn’t sing. Her voice wasn’t hard or smooth, it was just right. I’ve always been partial to “Give it to Me,” “Fallin’ in Love” (which samples my favorite Patrice Rushen jam, “Remind Me”) and her and Mary’s cover of Rose Royce’s “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore.” Such great songs make the album quite the time capsule, a reminder of why we all thought the greatness of Bad Boy was infinite.

But, like a lot of good shit in life, it just didn’t last. It seemed that Biggie’s death signaled the end of an era and the beginning of a downslide in the label’s material that reigned unchecked. All of a sudden Diddy got the itch to become a recording artist, the label’s marquee acts began to jump ship and a once innovative hit factory was awash in gimmicks. (I was officially through when he released that damn song for the “Godzilla” soundtrack. I knew it was a wrap at that point.) Though Carl Thomas did release two fire albums for the label later in the game, things just weren’t the same. Sometimes I still can’t believe how quickly it all seemed to end.

When you look at Bad Boy today, it’s hard to not shake your head. While I can deal with Cheri Dennis, the loathsome abomination that is Danity Kane and the “Making the Band” franchise that birthed them are too much for me to take. (Don’t even get me started on Cassie or Yung Joc, okay?) The jury’s still out on Day 26, but it’s highly unlikely they’ll be among my favorites either. I give Diddy his props because he’s a sharp businessman, but the music that’s coming out of his camp just isn’t cutting it these days. How things have changed.

Maybe I’m just becoming an old head holding onto my past. Or maybe Bad Boy has just done what many labels with a brand do and morphed into the sound of the moment’s young America.

Regardless, I’m thankful I can still reach for “Faith” and those other dusty discs and reflect on a time when I had it bad for Bad Boy, and it was damn good.

Sang that song, white boy! Some blue-eyed soul you may have missed

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While listening to surfer turned guitar-strumming pop sensation Jack Johnson’s “Sleep Through the Static” recently, I was struck by the open, confessional tone of his material. There were moments over the course of the album’s 51 minutes that I found myself really connecting with the singer in ways I didn’t quite think I would. It could be the way a word was rendered or a soft pause between verses … but there are some truly soulful moments there. You read it right. Soulful.

Listening to him made me think about some of the other warblers of the Caucasian persuasion that reside in my stacks of records, CDs and audio files. While the mass media will have you thinking that blue-eyed soul is confined to classic but oft-referenced masterpieces like Teena Marie’s “Robbery” and Michael McDonald’s “If That’s What it Takes” – or to a lesser to degree, the imitation soul of Justin Timberlake, Amy Winehouse, Joss Stone and Christina Aguilera – there are a slew of white pop and rock artists who reach soulful peaks without delving into the tried and true mores of the R&B style. After all, a set of pipes with no understanding of emotional resonance is just a set of pipes, a vessel for projecting lifeless wails.

So, below you’ll find five of my favorite blue-eyed soul jams, some of which might surprise you. Don’t let the atypical choices fool you – these cuts are the business and are among these artists’ best recorded moments.

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“A Fool At Heart” – Stephen Bishop (from “Bish,” ABC, 1978): Best known for his contributions to the “Animal House” soundtrack and the pop hit “On and On,” Bishop was in rare form on this tuneful, heart-on-your-sleeve ballad. Laced with a sweet electric piano and soft-rock guitar licks typical of the time, the cut is the perfect platform for his plaintive, often poignant crooning. And with R&B divas Chaka Khan and Natalie Cole soulin’ on the backgrounds, Brother Bish couldn’t lose.

“I Only Have Eyes for You” – Art Garfunkel (from “Breakaway,” Columbia, 1975): Save the side-eyes folks. The velvet-voiced half of Simon & Garfunkel took this song, an R&B smash for the Flamingos in 1959, and made it his own. Like the late Karen Carpenter, Garfunkel’s gift is his knack for storytelling, and his personal touch is a perfect fit here. Uncomplicated and beautiful for beauty’s sake, the performance – which features Garfunkel discovery Bishop providing harmonies –  is a guilty pleasure.

“Deeper” – Pete Belasco (from “Deeper,” Compendia, 2004): One of the best soul-jazz offerings of the last few years, Belasco’s “Deeper” is the truth. He’s getting his Curtis Mayfield on here, flexing his sticky falsetto with undeniable, almost enviable icy cool. The cosmopolitan sheen of Belasco’s swagger makes this, and its parent album, the quintessential late-night listening experience. This is put on your fly gear and cruise through the city in your ride shit.  

“Pathway to Glory” – Loggins & Messina (from “Full Sail,” Columbia, 1973): A favorite among Chicago steppers, this forgotten groover is a slow-building blend of AM rock and sublime soul. The bass-line is ominous, the harmonica and violin eerily emotional. The instrumental break is a moving bit of musical quietude that eventually clashes with a searing electric guitar, giving up a toe-curling climax and one of the album’s key moments. Jim Messina takes the lead, as Kenny Loggins’ trademark urgency would have been too forceful for the cut’s subtle beauty. Not one of the song’s eight minutes are wasted. In fact, you’ll want to listen twice to take it all in.

“Mellow My Mind” – Simply Red (from “Blue,” EastWest, 1998): This Neil Young-penned classic opens Simply Red’s “Blue,” an album originally intended to be a collection of cover tunes. Lead singer Mick Hucknall is known for the bombast of classics like “Holding Back the Years” and “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” but he takes things down a notch for this one. The light, breezy trip-hop laced backing and Hucknall’s bluesy delivery make this one a winner. For my money, the softer side of Hucknall is where his greatest strength lies.  

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When I think about songs like these I’m reminded that soul music is really about coming from the heart, which is what these blue-eyed soul brothers do in their own way. It may not be the soul of Otis Redding or Aretha, but these compositions can touch you, if you let them.

It’s all about feeling, and you’ll be surprised what you can feel when you open yourself up.  

Dream a little dream of Jose James

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The melodic, smooth jazz of Jose James is a breath of fresh air.

Sans the hyper-sexual macho histrionics that most male singers latch onto these days, the 28-year-old singer-songwriter has created a wonderfully artful debut in “The Dreamer,” one of the best albums to hit the streets this year.  Though a young performer, James has amassed a loyal following around the world that reaches from Asia to Europe – and it’s clear why after one listen to his work.

Recorded in New York, the album is a classy, refined foray into the minimalist, quartet-based jazz pioneered by the likes of the two legends the singer refers to as his musical parents – John Coltrane and Billy Holiday. Lean and meticulous without being self-indulgent, the Brooklyn-based crooner’s maiden voyage is a peaceful one, boasting smart arrangements and meditative lyrics. At times James evokes an “Art of Tea”-era Michael Franks, as his relaxed vocal approach effortlessly nestles itself into the album’s smokey soundscapes. Such restraint is what makes the album effective.

James wrote a good portion of the material showcased here and the intimacy of his readings shows it. The beautiful title track is a heartfelt paean to Martin Luther King Jr. in which James weaves his billowy baritone through a mournful, transcendent trumpet, while the bossa-nova tinged “Red” reflects on a love lost amid insistent bass and ivory tickling. And the odes to love “Winterwind” and “Blackeyedsusan” boast what in my view are the most beautiful piano solos on the album, creating definitive moments for the collection. Elsewhere, his take on Freestyle Fellowship’s “Park Bench People” fuses some hip-hop edge and social commentary into the mix, a nice touch that serves as a reminder that jazz does not have to be void of youth.

And that is what makes this record work. It’s a jazz outing first and foremost, yet it is not so heady that a young lover of R&B or dare I say, hip-hop, can’t get into it. A contemporary incarnation of the dying art-form that is live music, “The Dreamer” is an album primed for acceptance by bohemians and buppies alike. The reach of an excursion this good is plain limitless.

My verdict: James is a funky poet on the fast track to becoming one of this generation’s breakout talents. “The Dreamer” is likely just the beginning.

Vinyl examination: Head to the sky with Caldera

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When I was about 19 or so and thought I was grown, I began to get a hankering for exploring jazz. I knew I wasn’t up to any Miles Davis type of energy right out of the gate, so I started my journey slowly. I picked up jazz compilations here and there, eventually stumbling upon one called “Slow Jams: On the Jazz Tip, Volume Two.” This and similar collections introduced me to the soulful jazz of brothers like saxophonist Gary Bartz and keyboardist Dexter Wansel, and the jazz-inflected vocals of Phyllis Hyman, Patti Austin and Jean Carn. But there was one track on the album that struck a chord with me and piqued my interest. It was climactic and sensual … almost indescribable. Waxed by jazz fusion ensemble Caldera in 1976, the classic “Out of the Blue” is the song I’ve always credited with causing my interest in jazz and its variations to flourish.

From there, I began to search high and low for their LPs. I was never able to secure a copy of their self-titled debut (which featured “Out of the Blue”) but I did unearth “Sky Islands” and “Time and Chance,” their second and third albums for Capitol Records. While both are exotic, atmospheric cornucopias of sound, the former is the one that resonated with me and remains one of the most beloved records in my collection. There’s just something special and timeless about it.

Over the course of four albums, Caldera – Steve Tavaglione (flute, alto flute, soprano, alto and tenor saxophone), Jorge Strunz (electric and acoustic guitars), Mike “Baiano” Azevedo (congas and percussion), Carlos Vega (drums), Dean Cortez (electric bass), Hector Andrade (timbales, congas and percussion) and Eduardo del Barrio (acoustic and electric pianos, Moog, Roland and Oberheim Polyphonic synthesizers) – crafted a heady gumbo of jazz, soul and Latin rhythms that easily rivaled the work of contemporaries like Weather Report and Dave Valentin. Their sound typified the adventurous, open musical time that was the late ’70s.

It’s not surprising that they landed at Capitol, as the late ’70s and early ’80s were a fruitful period for the label from a creative standpoint: In addition to being the home of hit acts like Natalie Cole, Maze and Peabo Bryson, the label issued some stellar albums by Sheree Brown, Perry & Sanlin, Chuck Jackson and Rene & Angela – affectionately tagged “Capitol rare” releases by serious collectors – that never really sparked with the public. Regrettably Caldera fell into the latter category, never gaining the following of other jazz acts of the time. Still, they retain a cult following to this day, and 1977’s “Sky Islands” is a favorite among devotees.

Co-produced by del Barrio, Strunz and Earth, Wind & Fire keyboardist Larry Dunn, the album draws from a wide array of influences, emerging as a masterpiece in the process. An exciting rush of Latin percussion, electric guitar and squiggly, echoing synths, the album’s best moments are enough to propel your brain and your backside into action. There’s not a loser here, as cuts like the soaring “Pegasus” and the Afro-Cuban inspired “Carnavalito” bounce between fusion delight and pop accessibility with dizzying precision. And the beautiful, Dunn-penned “Seraphim (Angel)” is a soul-jazz gem, replete with ascending strings, a fluttering flute and a bass-line that’s as smooth as Saturday nights that melt into Sunday Mornings.

The real stunner here, however, is the powerful “Ancient Source,” the only selection included on the album that contains lyrics. Featuring a young, unknown Dianne Reeves on lead vocals, it is a picturesque, spiritual incantation that in my mind elevates the album to classic status. Reeves’ reading is thoughtful and introspective, a vocal that’s downright chilling in its accuracy. The imagery she conveys is as colorful as the complex instrumentation: “Look beyond the clouds/Meet the sun riding high/Let your eyes search out/In a wondering flight/Look beyond the clouds/For the meaning of light” are just some of the words that flowed from the minds of del Barrio and Ernesto J. Herrera.  Complete with a Dunn synthesizer solo, the song is one of the most sought after in the Caldera canon.

Reeves also lent her vocals to the frenetic title track, this time in the form of wordless ad libs and octave-leaping acrobatics. Functioning almost like one of the instruments, Reeves’ vocals brought great color and dramatic flavor to the mix. She would go on to become best known for the R&B classic “Better Days,” also known as “The Grandma Song.”

Despite having such strong material and talent going for it, the album failed to make an impact. The band split up just two short years later, though each member found his own niche in session work. Their self-titled album was released on CD in 2004 but has since become extremely difficult to track down, despite being a part of a huge number of Capitol reissues released during that time. Unfortunately, “Sky Islands” remains out of print.

Regardless, it’s an album that’s worth rediscovering. Hopefully, as time moves forward and appreciation for the fusion movement continues to grow, the album will rightfully claim its island in the sky.

In the meantime, check out “Ancient Source”…

And “Seraphim (Angel)” …

And they still together: ‘Hits, Remixes & Rarities’ is pure Ashford & Simpson magic

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By the time Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson began recording for Warner Bros. Records in 1973, they were bonafide industry vets. 

The greatest duets by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell? They wrote them. Those ethereal, unmatched recordings Diana Ross made early in her solo career? They produced them.  Boiling Ashford & Simpson down to the smash single “Solid” – don’t get it twisted, I LOVE that song – would be plain unjust.  While several anthologies have been issued on them, none have taken a deep look into their time at Warner, a period most agree was their most noteworthy as recording artists. Thankfully, the excellent, two-disc retrospective “The Warner Brothers Years: Hits, Remixes & Rarities” remedies this problem.

A highly personal, intimate collection, the set culls tracks from their eight Warner studio albums released between 1973 and 1981. While a hits collection, it takes things a step further by presenting the cuts in rare, extended 12-inch mixes, many of which are making their debut on compact disc. As an added bonus, A&S turned their masters over to a series of hand-picked jocks who re-imagined their gems as heavenly, often tribal remixes that could make ’08’s kids party like it’s ’78. I ain’t a big fan of remixes, but these dudes put their collective toe in these ditties. They aren’t as good as the originals of course, but they are damn close. In a sense, it’s almost like the records came home.

A&S  landed at Warner while disco was still bubbling under pop culture’s radar at clubs frequented by blacks, gays and Latinos and left when the style was about to draw its last mainstream breath – and the songs here reflect both ends of the spectrum and everything in between. Early, overlooked hits like “Over and Over,” “Tried, Tested and Found True” and “One More Try” (all of which were mixed for club play by Valerie’s brother Jimmy) are lush, nascent disco at its best, shining examples of why pre-“Saturday Night Fever” era dance music  shouldn’t be lumped with corporate crap like “YMCA” and “Funkytown.” This is solid, uptempo soul music, which is what disco was at its core. Built around Simpson’s strident piano playing, swirling strings and a whole lotta high-hat, it’s not surprising that these grooves – much like the outstanding A&S-produced dance cuts from Diana Ross’ 1979 offering “The Boss” – came across most effectively in the 12-inch format. The extra breathing room brings out nuances a standard five-minute album cut simply can’t capture. Many of the original pressings are collector’s items today, as the liner notes point out that the 12-inch single for “One More Try” recently fetched 750 bucks on eBay.

As the first disc progresses, we find the duo moving into their most successful period, an era that began with their landmark album “Send It” and the high-steppin’, hip-dressin’ disco-funk of the hit “Don’t Cost You Nothing.” All at once it seemed they found a strong identity as recording artists, as the album’s lovely title track and “Top of the Stairs” brought out an upscale, sophisti-soul sensibility in the duo’s approach. Their pop breakthrough “Found a Cure,” “Love Don’t Make it Right,” and my personal favorites, the elegant, timeless “It Seems to Hang On” and “Stay Free” (the title track from their 1979 album) added fuel to the fire of a period that earned three consecutive gold-selling albums and turned the duo into one of R&B’s most popular concert attractions.

I have to confess: When I picked this up and saw that the second disc was titled “Remixes” my side-eye kicked in. It’s hard to remix perfection, and too often DJs screw up great songs by putting ridiculous beats over R&B vocals. (Deborah Cox anyone?) That said, letting some of the top remixers in the game do their thing with the A&S masters was an ingenious idea. In their hands, the songs become even more expansive and intricate than the presentations on disc one, with riffs, runs and ad libs originally left on the cutting room floor seeing the light of day. Twelve-inch mix pioneer Tom Moulton, who put his stamp on hits by everyone from First Choice to Phyllis Hyman, transforms “Found a Cure” from an accessible top 40 pop entry to a 10-minute elastic jam. “It Seems to Hang On” takes on an airy, almost haunting aura thanks to Tommy Musto’s re-touch, while “Stay Free” gets two treatments from Dimitri from Paris. He captures both of clubland’s worlds: “Dim’s the Missing Mix” retains the original song’s tempo while bringing the guitars up a bit in the mix and adding some new bass riffs. Free and easy, this is one I could see Chicago steppers embracing. “Dim’s Club Mix,” however, is a little too hurried for my taste and borders on eroding into facelessness. Still, it ain’t half bad.  Overall, these and offerings by Joe Claussell, Paul Simpson (no relation to Valerie) and John Morales could make even the most anal purist reconsider his remix-related skepticism. A remix is only as good as the remixer, and the ones chosen for this collection just might turn me into a believer.

After a 1981 live album, the duo would leave Warner for Capitol and go on to have the biggest smash of their career with the infectious 1985 anthem “Solid.” More hits followed, but none matched the sheer beauty of the material released during their Warner tenure. Some spaces in time are just unparalleled.

Right down to the liner notes, this package radiates love, positivity and the power of good music. What makes both the originals and the remixes presented here special is the heart behind them, something that’s sadly missing from most of what we are subjected to today.  Without question, this is essential listening.

 Just like their marriage, Ashford & Simpson’s music just seems to hang on.

Are media hounds gonna dog Madonna for this one like they do with Janet?

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You know, I love Madonna. She isn’t even the issue here.

But for the past few years, the mainstream media have been screaming for Janet Jackson to drop her affinity for all things randy and go the route of Madonna – in other words, grow the fuck up. Yet, here we have Madonna, half-naked and spreadin’ ’em on the cover of her upcoming album, “Hard Candy.” I ain’t hating, because I love the picture.

All I know is I better hear white folks like the assholes over at Entertainment Weekly who hate on Janet – who is EIGHT years younger than Madonna – flogging the Material Mom the same way.

Trust and believe I ain’t holding my breath.

More action, more excitement, more everything: ‘Amerykah’ a polarizing place

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If nothing else, Erykah Badu knows how to get a rise out of people.

Beginning with her sophomore studio effort, 2000’s “Mama’s Gun,” Badu’s music has had a polarizing effect on her followers. I still remember how I came to own a copy of the album: My cousin came to visit and had it in her car. I asked what she thought about it and quick as a flash she said, “I hate it. You can have it if you want it.” So, I happily took the record home and popped it in, only to find that I shared my cousin’s sentiment. (Mind you, I got really pissed when I discovered that the banging radio version of “Bag Lady” was not included on the album and I had to go buy the CD single.) In my mind, “Gun” was to “Baduizm” what Maxwell’s “Embrya” was to “Urban Hang Suite” – a muddled, aimless shot at obtaining a new level of artistic credibility. Too many ’70s soul shadings and too few developed ideas, I thought.

But as is the case with a lot of art, time changed my point of view and I came to appreciate the record’s grace and beauty. It really is a masterwork. And while I’ll be the first one to admit that I’ve always questioned the authenticity of Badu’s “Earth mama” persona, there’s no denying the potency of her musical vision. She would continue her unique brand of evolution on 2003’s “Worldwide Underground,” an “EP” that expanded her exploration into odd musical blends and fueled more debate among fans. By late 2007, Badu’s disciples were missing her terribly (though she stayed in steady contact with folks via the Internet, live shows and the occasional interview) and wanted some new product.

Enter “New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)” and its lead single, “Honey.”

I waited a bit to dig into it, partly because I love to see how listeners absorb Badu’s work. Considering the trajectory of Badu’s recorded output, the observations of some of my friends and associates regarding the album have been interesting to say the least. Some love it (“It’s straight fiyah – Badu did her thing”), while others act as if they are downright appalled by what they heard (“Fuck her – I won’t be buying part two or anything else till she makes some real music”). I expected the former response, as those of us who stan for certain artists will eat up whatever they do. The latter stance, however, shocked me a bit. I thought by now anybody who put down their 10 bucks for a Badu joint understood one thing: It will likely take more than one listen to start feeling the material.

I guess there are still some who haven’t gotten the memo.

Despite what some of the haters say, I’m actually feeling it. Unlike a lot of what’s been flooding the market over the last year or two, this is an album you have to listen to. That’s right, listen. This is put your headphones on, get in the zone shit, the sort of thing that requires your undivided attention. Things got off to a peculiar start with the odd yet engaging “Amerykahn Promise,” which sounds like it came straight out of one of Rudy Ray Moore’s “Dolemite” flicks. A superbad soul brother promises “More action, more excitement, more everything!” in the first seconds of the track, and what follows is just that.  While I’m still internalizing a lot of the lyrical content of the album, an immediate impact was definitely made. It’s weird and beautiful all at the same time, a bizarre work of loveliness.

At its heart, the album is both confessional and political, with Badu’s musings on self and society wrapped in her trademark sonic melange. The sweetly melodic “Me” is a poignant look at womanhood (“My ass and legs have gotten thick/it’s all me”) and love and relationships (“Had two babies different dudes/and for them both my love was true”), while the insistent “Solider” is an unapologetic call to arms in which, among other things, Badu shouts out those “baptised when the levees broke.” Over the course of cuts like “The Cell,” “That Hump” and “Master Teacher,” everything from the fractures of government to the faults of the black community are reflected upon with raw intensity. Amid a swirl of bottom-heavy grooves, hip-hop beats, bleeps and blips, Badu elevates self reflection and social commentary to new heights. 

When you look at just how adventurous the album is, the wave of negative feedback it has generated is disappointing. My gut tells me the infectious lead single (and bonus track) “Honey” is to blame for at least some of the backlash. A sunny, radio-ready slice of soul buoyed by a fly video that captures Badu recreating album covers of classic soul artists, the song likely roped casual listeners into thinking the album would follow a similar pattern. So I suspect a lot of folks set themselves up for a letdown right from the start.

That’s unfortunate, because the thoughts and feelings housed in the album’s grooves are more than worthy of a critical listen. And if any of those taking such a harsh look at the album took time to dig into the singer’s wildly colored past, none of what passed before their ears would have soured their experience. Simply put, the album is an exercise in not one, but two things: being aware of where an artist is coming from and opening your mind to a new musical exercise.

Like a lot of life’s sweetest treats, ‘New Amerykah’ is an acquired taste – a rich excursion into neo-psychedelia that takes a bit of time to digest. It’s just a shame more people aren’t up to the challenge.