With Black Radio III, Robert Glasper Continues to Expand His Sonic Universe

Ten years after breaking barriers with Black Radio, Glasper’s vision of jazz, hip-hop and R&B as mutually sustaining forms remains as vital and promising as ever

Music Reviews Robert Glasper
With Black Radio III, Robert Glasper Continues to Expand His Sonic Universe

In the liner notes for the third installment of pianist Robert Glasper’s Black Radio series, Glasper’s thank-you list consists of a single line: “Thanks to the Universe”—a somewhat odd choice from a musician who’s fostered such a communal spirit over a career that reads like an endless list of musical get-togethers. Like so many of his previous efforts, the sheer number, caliber and range of guests who appear on Black Radio III just jumps off the page, enticing listeners to imagine what each successive musical pile-up is going to sound like. Even Glasper’s dad remarks about all the collaborations during one of the album’s interludes, referring to his son’s creative workspace as “the lab.”

Hip-hop lovers accustomed to seeing features on every tracklist might not be as impressed as Pops, but Glasper curates his albums almost as if he were putting together a festival lineup—the kind where you’re able to hear faint traces of music coming from another stage off in the distance. Here, though, the disparate elements tend to align, and it should come as no surprise to fans that Black Radio III epitomizes Glasper’s knack for coaxing fireworks out of other musicians while keeping the mood supremely laid-back.

Eight of the 13 tracks feature multiple guests—including India.Arie, Q-Tip, Meshell Ndegeocello, Esperanza Spalding, Common and Ty Dolla $ign, to name just a few—seemingly mashed together, as if Glasper loves to push contrast to the point where he flirts with, but never quite allows things to tip over into chaos. The staccato, machine gun-like phrasing of Run The Jewels mouthpiece and outspoken social critic Killer Mike, for example, slots right in next to the silky-smooth croon of BJ The Chicago Kid on “Black Superhero,” the latest feature to showcase Glasper’s long-running love for neo soul and its modern-day offshoots.

To be fair, rappers have been doing features alongside R&B artists (and vice-versa) for decades, so “Black Superhero” isn’t exactly a radical innovation. That said, Glasper certainly deserves credit for making his guests look like natural dance partners. In his element—even without any music, like when he’s just riffing about politics on TV—it’s practically impossible for Killer Mike to avoid pumping the listener’s adrenaline into the red. That Glasper manages the musical equivalent of placing a bomb on a pillow—without diminishing the song’s message about everyday survival in the hood as a heroic, even godlike act—is no small feat indeed.

Conversely, Black Radio III kicks into high gear with the organ-driven “Why We Speak,” which pairs polyglot jazz bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding alongside A Tribe Called Quest leader Q-Tip. Remarkably, Glasper doesn’t actually increase the tempo or attack, and yet the energy level takes off as Spalding and Q-Tip call and respond in a stirring mishmosh of Spanish, French and English. Spalding’s chopped-up backing vocals give the song a semi-automated temperament that’s oddly enlivening (along the same lines as Janelle Monae’s playful robot persona), while Q-Tip showcases a flair for melody that most of his fans probably didn’t even know he had—two prime examples of Glasper’s gift for bringing out the unexpected in people.

Between his 2004 debut album Mood and his fourth album, 2009’s Double Booked, Glasper’s work hinted at a vision of music where the refined airs of traditional jazz could fuse seamlessly with the street sensibility of hip-hop. Double Booked, in fact, opens with jazz trumpeter and frequent Spike Lee film composer Terence Blanchard name-checking Roots drummer Questlove. Of course, Glasper was by no means the first to bring those worlds together—hip-hop figures like Q-Tip, Gang Starr’s Guru and Questlove had long laid the foundation, all of them instrumental in bringing an awareness of jazz to a whole new generation of listeners. But if Glasper wasn’t in on the ground floor of that sea change, his involvement predates his own crossover success, having played with the likes of Bilal, Erykah Badu, The Roots, J Dilla and Common in the late ‘90s. (Quick primers on his history here and here.)

Years later, when Glasper released Black Radio in 2012 with his group The Robert Glasper Experiment and a slew of his friends, he arguably ushered in a sea change of his own. Suddenly, with some help from Badu, Lupe Fiasco and Yasiin Bey (Mos Def), it was as if we could stop asking questions like, “What if jazz had never stopped being popular?” and “What if more people appreciated jazz,hip-hop and R&B alike?” With Black Radio, Glasper had captured a glimpse of a universe where both those questions were moot—perhaps the same universe he thanks in the credits of Black Radio III. Jazz musicians have been playing popular music forever, but Glasper’s attempts have never been hampered by that awkward, academic distance that plagues so many of his jazz peers. For him, these fusions aren’t just a form of musical dalliance, but a vehicle by which we might all arrive at a higher form of communion.

This time around, he doesn’t necessarily stretch all that far beyond the ground he broke 10 years ago. Nevertheless, Black Radio III makes a rather compelling case for jazz and hip-hop as mutually sustaining forms that not only beautify and propel one another forward, but also provide the inspiration for the rest of us to do the same amongst ourselves. The album grapples openly with America’s collective inability to come to terms with the paradox of being fascinated by a people and a culture that it’s put so much energy into denigrating. “If I was facing death,” Killer Mike rhymes on “Black Superhero,” “then I could ask one thing of God / I would ask for every n**** to be free here and abroad / and to be rightfully celebrated as a child of God.”

Much like Glasper has shown us the way to a middle plane that exists between hip-hop and jazz, Black Radio III aspires to the sacred (love, transcendence, peace from persecution) while attending to the profane (oppression, a police officer’s knee on the neck of dying man calling for his mother, and everything that image connotes about our justice system). On “Black Superhero,” for example, Killer Mike also reiterates his pro-gun stance and invokes the slogan “give me liberty or give me death,” intentionally—and ingeniously—toying with the fact that listeners will automatically associate his language with right-wing values. When Black Radio III dares to be this thought-provoking, Glasper and company tend to keep it subtle.

Musiq Soulchild, for example, manages to reflect multiple aspects of the word “love” on “Everybody Love,” touching on love’s procreative (sexual) dimensions, as well as love’s potency as the best reprisal against hate. Against Glasper’s pleasantly mellow keyboard lines, one has to lean in a little to notice that Musiq isn’t talking about the syrupy, shallow kind of love we often got from R&B radio hits that sounded like this years ago. Likewise, on “Better Than I Imagined,” Glasper chooses not to showcase Meshell Ndegeocello’s staggering musical talents, but instead presents her in a spoken-word context. Few artists can convey vulnerability with as much power or depth as Ndegeocello, and here her simple reflections on what it feels like to realize you’re falling in love lend even more dimension to our understanding of what love can be.

These revelations about love, of course, carry more weight because they’re grounded in ugly truths. Glasper shifts the lighting ever so slightly on Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” for example, re-casting the ‘80s smash hit as a mournful treatise on power. In spots, though, the album doesn’t offer much by way of nuance or fresh insight. Poet Amir Sulaiman’s album-opening monologue, where he describes balking from telling his mother about the death of George Floyd, humanizes the tragedy and renders it even more heart-rending, if you can imagine that. But Sulaiman then conflates the backlash to widespread property destruction in the ensuing 2020 protests with the trivializing of human life—a tempting and oft-cited aphorism that ignores the fact that poor, urban, minority communities are often hurt the most when property is destroyed. The issues that permeate Black Radio III deserve better than that kind of facile expression.

At the end of the day, though, practically every note on this album shines with the splendor of the African-American contribution to music, and that’s the triumph here. When “Everybody Love” segues into “It Don’t Matter,” for example, the mood glides seamlessly between early-2000s neo soul and classic ‘70s soul. As a pretend radio DJ, Glasper has quite the supple touch, and his nostalgia for the glory days of both periods shines through. But as a real-life composer, he writes piano progressions that take your breath away, and Black Radio III is filled with them. Ultimately, it’s Glasper’s ability to write for, lead and listen to other musicians in equal measure that makes Black Radio III as vital and promising a statement as its predecessors.

Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a longtime contributor at Paste. He believes that a music journalist’s job is to guide readers to their own impressions of the music. You can find him on Twitter and Substack at feedbackdef.substack.com

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