You might be asking for trouble if you call yourselves “Innovative.Afro.Futuristic.Griots,” as Soul Science Lab does. It’s a handle that could either invite unrealistic expectations or ridicule. In the end, it’s perfect. The description suggests creativity and insights that honor the past while pointing towards the future. After listening to and living with their debut album, Plan For Paradise, you’d be very hard pressed to think of a better description of the music created by the Brooklyn-based duo of Chen Lo and Asante Amin.
What they reach for and almost always pull off with this album can take a while to get your head around. It’s not so much a musical release as it is an explosion, a manifesto, an artistic statement and a directional plan for a culture. Through the course of 14 interconnected tracks, Soul Science Lab present a collective vision of black art and culture that expresses the diversity and interconnectedness of African creative thought throughout the diaspora.
Soul Science utilize many elements of traditional African music—kalimba finger pianos and stringed mbiras are used to lay down bedrock rhythms in the opening track—but Lo and Amin clearly don’t view ancient history through rose-colored glasses. Songs like “We So Infinite” and “Africa’s the Future” are far more concerned with the present and future than with a past that can’t recaptured. And, even though songs like “I Can’t Breathe” highlight injustices that should never be forgotten, there’s a refreshing lack of negativity and blame on the record. The duo sounds far more interested in searching for bright futures than getting caught reliving regrettable events that can’t be changed. The songs mention everything from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X to Exodus, the Black Star Liner and the mystical powers of the pyramids of Khufu, but they’re being shared as markers on the road rather than a final destination.
For all the mentions of the past, there is no sense of nostalgia on any of the songs. There’s a deep confidence and optimism shared when the names of every African nation are chanted on “Africa’s The Future.” From the start, it’s obvious that they have no interest in rehashing 400 year old stories of a broken culture. The story’s been told and furthermore it would be an insult to the very real and vibrant Africa that they describe as unfolding today. Soul Science Lab’s music is hopeful, active and not reactive; the focus in their songs is always on solutions and not on problems. Soul Science Lab is planning for an Afrofuturist paradise, not Armageddon.
From a musical perspective, the songs on Plan For Paradise present an aural feast that is a glorious evocation of all black music as they create and sample sounds that run the gamut from gospel to blues, jazz, reggae, funk and soul right through to jungle and Afrobeat. Somehow, the dense musical soundtracks flow perfectly. And even when melodies and musical paradigms shift in mid-song as they do on “Gimme Dat,” nothing strains, tears or sounds unnatural. The album rips and roars throughout with the intensity only letting up briefly with the inclusion of a few more down tempo numbers like the languid “A Part of Me” and the gentle salsa of “Kingmaker.”
Any missteps here have to do with the sheer ambition surrounding the project. The few points at which things fall down are when there are too many musical ideas vying for attention. It can be a very dense record to listen to all the way through in one sitting, making it difficult to absorb and dissemble immediately. The overall effect can be a bit overwhelming, but it would be a mistake to ignore these Innovative.Afro.Futuristic.Griots. They might just be a big part of the positive future of which they sing.