Esperanza Spalding's Radio Music Society is not a pop record. There are no collabos with Lil Wayne or Nicki Minaj, she hasn't straightened her 'fro, and there's no Auto-Tune to be found here.
I felt the need to reassure all of the BAPS and bohos out there because since she released her debut album in 2008, Spalding has become The Patron Saint of Black Hipsters. Like, if the
Cosby Show were still on, she'd be a guest star playing her cello in Cliff and Clair's living room. I mean, she fits all the criteria.
- Formally-trained African-American musical prodigy? Check.
- Unusual cool name you have to explain? Check.
- Natural hair? Check.
- And the clincher? Prince himself is a fan. Check and mate.
So, when I heard her next album was called Radio Music Society and saw Spalding posing
with a boom box on the cover, I along with hipsters around the world assumed the worst and
almost spit out our soy lattes.
Now that we're clear on what Radio Music Society is not, let's look at what it is. Billed as
a companion piece to 2010's Chamber Music Society, RMS seems to be Esperanza's way of
introducing her other side to the world. Though we have mostly been exposed to her giftedness
as a cellist and vocalist, some may be surprised to learn Spalding has been playing bass guitar
since her early teens. On Radio Music Society she invites us to experience the confluence of her funk and R&B
influences with the jazz she's made her name on.
This style is best demonstrated on my favorite track, "Crowned & Kissed." It has plenty of muted
trumpets, trombone solos, and time signature changes for the jazz purists, melded with its
chunky piano rhythms and nod-inducing beat. Spalding's brilliant jazz vocal phrasing deftly
tells her man to "Lay your burdens down/don't even make a sound/Don't worry 'bout a thing/
I'm here to love ya." She takes a fresh approach to Michael Jackson's "I Can't Help It" by leading
off with a full minute's worth of vocal improvisation and hi-hat. I also liked how she infused the
background vocals softly into the piece, bringing to mind Sergio Mendes.
SoulBounce faithful will be thrilled to know that Lalah Hathaway contributes her inimitable vocal
genius to "Endangered Species." She goes from solo verses, to harmonizing with Spalding, to
making her voice the instrument in the jazz vocal tradition on this intricate mid-tempo song. It
feels like being at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, drinking wine, and going from
quietly grooving to yelling "go 'head!" and back.
I couldn't help but imagine what Jill Scott would have done vocally with the "Let Her," perhaps
because the first few notes are similar to Scott's "It's Love." Still, Esperanza does a fantastic
job of interpreting this cautionary tale that anyone who's been in a relationship knows all too
well. The protagonist on this song has "just walked into the quiet after the storm" (see what
I mean?) in his apartment and found "the" letter and keys on the table. Spalding cleverly
incorporates a recording of the girlfriend's answering machine rant like a hip-hop interlude or
skit, but more like a bridge. The taunting Fender Rhodes piano and trumpets almost mimic the
The album ends with "Smile Like That," a smooth-as-glass groove where Spalding wonders why
someone else makes her man smile in a way she's never seen before. The use of an electric guitar
solos here fits with the more minimalistic nature of this song. It mostly uses percussion, electric
bass, and guitar with a sprinkling of brass here and there. Spalding's voice sprints into her upper
register and then back, wondering what has captured her love's attention without sounding angry
or bitter. It made me envision a trio or quartet in a small jazz club anywhere just grooving for
the love of the music.
Spalding's Radio Music Society is a jazz album that is highly palatable
to non-jazz fans and straight ahead jazz purists alike. This is a society where everyone will fit
Esperanza Spalding Radio Music Society [Amazon][iTunes]