First Listen

First Listen: Robert Glasper Experiment, 'Black Radio'

Robert Glasper Experiment's new album, Black Radio, comes out Feb. 28. i i

Robert Glasper Experiment's new album, Black Radio, comes out Feb. 28. Mike Schreiber/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

itoggle caption Mike Schreiber/Courtesy of the artist
Robert Glasper Experiment's new album, Black Radio, comes out Feb. 28.

Robert Glasper Experiment's new album, Black Radio, comes out Feb. 28.

Mike Schreiber/Courtesy of the artist

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In the title track of Black Radio, Yasiin Bey (nee Mos Def) muses on the supposedly indestructible "black boxes" recovered from commercial airplane crashes. It's a metaphor for the durability of substantive music, even in a turbulent time for the recording industry.

Big bird falling down a mountain pass
Only thing to survive the crash
Black radio

Of course, Black Radio is a record on which every performer is African-American, and it blares sonic signifiers of hip-hop, R&B, soul, funk and jazz at every turn. So, yeah: There are overt hints of an alternate meaning, one about pride and possibility in the tradition of black-origin popular music.

You wanna fly free, go far and fast
Built to last, we made this craft
From black radio

The Robert Glasper Experiment is uniquely qualified to handle this blues continuum with care. All four members — Robert Glasper, keys; Casey Benjamin, sax and vocoder; Derrick Hodge, bass; Chris Dave, drums — come from deep, inducted-into-the-fraternity jazz backgrounds. But in this group, they all treat "jazz" more as verb than noun, which has allowed them to freely and frequently collaborate with rappers, singers and other unclassifiables of talent. Like The Roots as the house band of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, the Experiment has become a model of versatility, open-mindedness and general good music appreciation; it, too, has become one of America's premier black-music jam bands.

Hence the guest list here. Erykah Badu performs the jazz standard "Afro Blue." Lalah Hathaway does a Sade song. Ledisi writes lyrics over a Glasper tune. Chrisette Michele and Musiq Soulchild hop on a slow jam. Lupe Fiasco raps. The artist formerly known as Mos Def raps. Bilal sings Bowie. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is covered. Meshell Ndegeocello. KING. Shafiq Husayn of Sa-Ra. Stokley Williams of Mint Condition. And so on.

If there's a unifying element here, it's a quality of feeling "organic." Black Radio sounds like it was sung, spoken and played by gloriously imperfect human beings, striking real acoustic pianos and snare drums and bass guitars with hard-won finesse. It's a quality of sound which has largely disappeared in contemporary hip-hop and R&B radio — i.e., the type of radio largely marketed to black people who live in cities. But Glasper and his cohorts make the case that music which will endure in the future can have a spot in the rotation now.

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First Listen