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Album Review: Black Radio

22 April 2012 | 11:59 am | Tom Birts

Composer and pianist Robert Glasper would have been just 12 years old when Guru and Premier dropped Jazz Thing back in 1990. Jazz, hip hop and soul have always intertwined, now so to a point where the genres are such easy bedfellows that jazz label Blue Note releasing an album heavy in hip hop and soul is no longer unusual.

Composer and pianist Robert Glasper would have been just 12 years old when Guru and Premier dropped Jazz Thing back in 1990. Jazz, hip hop and soul have always intertwined, now so to a point where the genres are such easy bedfellows that jazz label Blue Note releasing an album heavy in hip hop and soul is no longer unusual.

There are no surprises on the roster here either, the calibre of artists on Black Radio top notch. Erykah Badu's feline vocal on Glasper's pulsing arrangement of Afro Blue ensures one of the stronger tracks. Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) is on form, spitting staccato raps over a military snare on the title track, and Why Do We Try sees Chris Dave's urgent percussion and crystalline cymbal shimmer stealing the show from a syncopated piano and the underused vocals of Stockley Williams. But for every sweet moment there is treacle to wade through – the mournful reworking of Smells Like Teen Spirit overwrought, the plaintive vocoder mewling of the last robot in the junkyard making for a dull listen.

Glasper's talent as a musician is undeniable, but on this record he's not breaking new ground. Taken as a whole, it sounds curiously dated, and for an album that aims to be experimental it plays things very safely. It's pertinent that the standout tracks, on both ends of the spectrum, are cover versions – the new ground that Robert Glasper is searching for on Black Radio remains unbroken. That said, there are some truly great moments, and again the quality of contributors (Bilal, Lupe Fiasco, Musiq Soulchild) keeps things interesting. Black Radio has soul – it's just nothing 'neo'.