These ain't no Hollyweird Africans; these are Diaspora greats who burn to shine:
What's goin' on was the late Marvin Gaye's dark, complex sonic meditation on America's turbulent 1960s, an era bookended primarily by Civil Rights struggle and the VietNam War. Now, the great Dirty Dozen Brass Band has re-contextualized Gaye's song cycle to talk about these troubled times for Gulf Coast residents and the nation at-large. What's Going On (Shout! Factory) opens appropriately with incendiary Public Enemy MC Chuck D guesting, and rolls on into Bettye LaVette's strong take on "What's Happening Brother." Other co-stars are Nawlinze ambassador Ivan Neville, G. Love and Guru. Throughout, the core retronuevo brass stylings of Gregory Davis and company offer a heartfelt, grief-laden perspective on Gaye's classics. As the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina passed yesterday on Aug. 29 , this disc is the most fitting memorial possible from some of New Orleans' most cherished native sons.
J-dilla (aka Jay Dee) came to fame as a co-founder of Detroit hip-hop outfit Slum Village and as producer for the genre's elite of vanguard artists like Common, the Roots and Erykah Badu. The late artist's legacy has been cemented with the posthumous release of The Shining (BBE). And the guestlist includes a slew of Dilla's famous clients: Busta Rhymes, Common, the Roots' Black Thought and the now near-mythical D'Angelo. One doesn't like to speak ill of the dead, but I'd be remiss as a critic if this production curiosity was overlooked: key dialogue from Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film of the same name underscores the CD's 12 tracks. The highlighted repetition of misogynistic, homicidal speech serves as bizarre counterpoint to the many songs thematically focused on love: "Love Jones," "Baby," "Jungle Love," "Love Movin'" etc. Of course, Jack Nicholson's bloodthirsty mania is slightly offset by Scatman Crothers' definition of "shining" as recuperative black force. The latter is the ultimate message to take away from this work.
The Dears, Montréal's finest indie rockers, certainly symbolize why many Yankee ears have been running for the border in recent years -- the other border, that is. Sure, the thriving Canadian rock scene's already been anointed by the NYC rock press, but the scene's only as good as its latest export. The Dears' forthcoming Gang of Losers (Arts & Crafts) is great multi-ethnic, symphonic rock to carry the torch in the wake of Arthurly's passing. Bandleader Murray Lightburn is often likened to Damon Albarn and Morrissey; yet, oftener than not, he sounds more like Seal at his most accessible. And that's a good thing for the disc's best tracks: "Bandwagoneers," "Fear Made the World Go 'Round," "I Fell Deep" -- plus the subtly scathing "Whites Only Party" (where Ole Moz is aptly channeled).
Radiodread is responsible for the currently acclaimed all-reggae version of Radiohead's OK Computer. Brooklyn's Easy Star Records is now reassured of more than novelty status -- they'd already released the reggae Pink Floyd tribute, Dub Side of the Moon, in 2003. Players large and small appear on the disc, among them: Toots Hibbert's "Let Down," Sugar Minott's "Exit Music (For a Film)" and Tamar-kali's "Climbing Up the Walls." Burn one down: Junior Jazz's take on "Subterranean Homesick Alien."
Pharrell Williams actually qualifies as a Hollywood African (per Jean-Michel Basquiat), since he's become a pitchman for Louis Vuitton -- a far cry from the scuzzy skatepark, no? This certainly belies the album art quote from In My Mind (Star Trak): "Wealth is of the heart and mind. Not of the pocket." The meteoric transformation of über-producer Pharrell from maverick Southern artist to Diddy Jr. is appalling and very emblematic of the crisis amongst 21st century black bohemias across the Diaspora. When everybody's a shill for ever-merging corporations (useless Cristal boycott's aside), how does a revolutionary black aesthetic survive? On life support, I reckon -- if Pharrell's latest is any indication. ... Between N.E.R.D.'s debut and assorted Neptunes' works such as the great, unreleased Kelis CD Wanderland, I'd foreseen a glorious future for Pharrell at the vanguard of Southern rock and the Diaspora's cultural production. This disappointing disc sadly decreases my surety.
Bonus track: Pharrell's key influence may have shifted from Steely Dan (as recently discussed in this section) to Suge. Yet, when not busy calling out the Butterscotch Stallion (aka homewrecker Owen Wilson) for intellectual theft, rock history's favorite eggheads, Donald Fagen & Walter Becker, still deliver seamless live versions of their 1970s-vintage classics -- as they recently did at Verizon, coded language, sly sexuality and all. The new Steely Dan: The Definitive Collection (Geffen) features all the classics you'd expect, whether you dismiss them as yacht rock or not. Essential: "Peg" featuring Michael McDonald and the death of hippie epic "Kid Charlemagne." Extra: Owen's Muse "Cousin Dupree."