Modern musicians explore progressive music frontiers

On the opening track of Black Radio, recently released by the Robert Glasper Experiment, hip-hop artist Shafiq Husayn entreats listeners to use the following album as therapy.

Progressive · Though considered a hip-hop group, the Robert Glasper Experiment explores a diverse range of uncharted musical territory. - Photo courtesy of Mike Schreiber

“Now as we prepare for our liftoff, you’ll need only two things to direct your course: your ears and your soul. I bring to you the Robert Glasper Experiment: experimentation for meditation,” Husayn bellows.

What the listener soon realizes, however, is that Husayn’s petition is unnecessary because Glasper’s Black Radio emotional remedies speak for themselves.

In a music review, it is common practice to frame the boundaries within which a group establishes its melodic prowess, but that format doesn’t fit the Robert Glasper Experiment. The group is both the exception and the new standard.

In fact, trying to pigeonhole the Robert Glasper Experiment into an established musical genre is akin to trying to fit the clichéd square peg into the round hole. Critics stumble over aspects of various genres and usually end up characterizing the Experiment’s style as a fusion of jazz, hip-hop and rhythm and blues. Though the Experiment’s sound certainly shows off these elements, it’s misleading to view the group’s music as a pastiche of influences. Instead, the group’s sound is a brilliant synthesis that pushes the frontier of musical progression.

The Robert Glasper Experiment is composed of Robert Glasper on keys, Casey Benjamin on saxophone, Derrick Hodge on bass and Chris Dave on drums. Though the band is well-defined by this core four, Glasper enlists the help of an elite cast of featured artists to fill out the group’s sound and make Black Radio feel like a family reunion. Vocals are provided by past collaborators and influences of the Experiment, including Bilal Oliver, Lupe Fiasco, Ledisi, Musiq Soulchild, Meshell Ndegeocello and Mos Def.

Track four on Black Radio, “Always Shine,” features longtime Experiment collaborator Bilal Oliver singing hooks for three verses of Lupe Fiasco’s wily rhymes. Fiasco feels at home over Glasper’s rolling piano chords and keeps a moderate tempo, all with confidence.

And the title track, “Black Radio,” feels built for Mos Def before the vocals come in.  Glasper expertly constructs a swift current of drum and bass for Mos Def to freestyle his way through. Here, Mos Def hits with his signature spiritual, staccato flow and range of tones. A short afterword follows the song, with Glasper and crew jamming as Mos Def whistles.

Despite the Experiment’s emphasis on intricate original tunes, the band intentionally dives into vastly different styles with covers of David Bowie’s “Letter to Hermione,” Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Sade’s “Cherish the Day” and the Afro-Cuban standard “Afro Blue.”

Lalah Hathaway transforms Sade’s “Cherish the Day” from a pensive slow jam into a slice of self-assurance encouraged by a moving drum beat. Glasper’s rendition of Bowie’s “Letter to Hermione” is also notable: Here, guest singer Bilal Oliver croons the humble sentiments of an unrequited love, in the process recapturing Bowie’s tender vocal qualities.

Perhaps the most ambitious track on the album is the Experiment’s cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Modulating vocals replace Kurt Cobain’s pining rasp to imbue the song with a sense of robotic detachment.

Glasper grabs hold of the original and folds it into a jazzy exploration complete with earthy bongos on one end and futuristic filtered vocals on the other, giving the track his stamp of originality. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is further evidence of the Experiment’s ability to venture out into the broader world of music and return home with the finest aspects of every genre.

The album cover for Black Radio is an image of Glasper that’s sliced into hundreds of pieces and recast into something of a modern-day Janus. Discernible in the center of the image is Glasper supporting the weight of thought with his hand as he glances up. Surrounding his face are cut-ups of eyes, mouths and noses facing in all directions.

If an album cover can be symbolic as an artist’s perspective of his or her place in music, Glasper aptly illustrates the accomplishments of Black Radio by choosing to represent his band with a human head that seems to be simultaneously together and disjointed.