By Eleni P. Austin
In 2010, HBO premiered a half-hour comedy series called “How To Make It In America.” The title made it sound like an earnest immigrant saga. In reality, it was a show about Ben Epstein and Cam Calderon, two young and talented hustlers trying to make it in the New York fashion scene.
Kind of a hip, NYC cousin to “Entourage,” it was funny, cutting edge and obviously fashion-forward. But the best thing about the show was the theme song, “I Need A Dollar,” which introduced the masses to Aloe Blacc. Gritty and soulful, it sounded like the best Bill Withers/Curtis Mayfield collaboration you never heard.
Aloe Blacc was born Egbert Nathaniel Hawkins III in 1979. His parents came from Panama, but Blacc grew up deep behind the Orange curtain in Laguna Hills, California. He began learning the trumpet in grammar school. Early exposure to RUN DMC cemented his interest in music. In high school Blacc and his friend, DJ Exile created the rap duo Emanon, (“No name” spelled backwards), inspired by a Dizzy Gillespie song.
As a straight A student, Blacc won a scholarship to USC where he majored in Communications and Linguistics. Following college, he worked for financial consultants Ernst & Young. But his passion for music could not be denied. In 2003, Blacc left the corporate world to pursue a career in music.
He changed his name to Aloe, (because he is “smooth as lotion”) and distanced himself from Hip-Hop. The socially conscious Rap that had inspired him, like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, had been supplanted by beats and rhymes that simply glorified violence and misogyny.
After recording a couple of EPs, Blacc was signed to the influential Stones Throw Records. The L.A. label is home to Rap visionaries, J Dilla, Madlib and MF Doom. His long-playing debut, Shine Through, arrived in 2006.
But it was his 2010 sophomore effort, Good Things that put Aloe Blacc on the map. Along with “I Need A Dollar,” this warm and soulful album included the upbeat “Green Lights,” the bittersweet “Miss Fortune,” and a surprisingly passionate cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale.”
In 2013, Blacc provided lead vocals and co-wrote “Wake Me Up” with Swedish DJ, Avicii. The song saturated the airwaves and dance clubs, reaching #1 in 22 countries. Unfortunately, Avicii (ne’ Tim Bergling), rarely acknowledging Blacc’s collaboration, making it seem as though Blacc was merely a featured vocalist.
Blacc is back, front and center on his third record (his first for major label, Interscope), entitled “Lift Your Spirits.” The album kicks off with the one-two punch of “The Man,” and “Love Is The Answer.”
The opening track, “The Man” swaggers with self-confidence. Built around the infectious “you can tell everybody” refrain (nicked, with permission from Elton John’s “Your Song”), the melody is a majestic, and Gospel-inflected. Blacc is boastful, but never arrogant.
Co-written with superstar-producer , (and dapper haberdasher) Pharrell Williams, “Love Is The Answer” is anchored by killer bass lines, (that recall Queen’s “Another One The Bites The Dust”) insistent handclaps, and a buttery horn section. Along with Blacc’s fiery vocals all of the above divert attention from the trite sentiments of the lyrics.
As likable as Lift Your Spirits is, there are a couple of truly awful tracks here. In Avicii’s hands, “Wake Me Up” felt unctuous and cloying. Blacc’s version is more organic and acoustic, with jangly guitar and gospel-y piano. Unfortunately, even the spare arrangement can’t deflect from the jejune and generic lyrics.
“Here Today” sports an interesting see-saw rhythm and bright piano chords that thread through the melody. But that cannot camouflage the clichéd “count your blessings” sentiments…“Been from five star hotels to cockroach motels, and Rodeo Drive retail to thrift store resale/ We ain’t promised tomorrow, so I’m going to live for today.” Each affirmation is punctuated by a hey, whoa or yeah. Yuck
“Can You Do This,” “Chasing” and “Ticking Bomb,” all feel like missed opportunities. “Can You Do This” is a thrilling Jackie Wilson/James Brown pastiche, wedding a swivel-hipped melody to sinewy guitar. But the song suffers from instrumental overload and Blacc’s manic vocal delivery.
“Chasing” echoes the smoky smoothness of Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye. Had Blacc kept it simple with fluttery guitar fills the song would be irresistible. Unfortunately, an overly busy arrangement, coupled with slightly misogynist lyrics painting women as gold diggers diminishes the delight.
Finally, the war-cry melody of “Ticking Bomb” sounds like an unlikely mash-up of the Temptations’ “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” and Paul Revere & The Raiders’ “Indian Reservation (Cherokee People).” But the lyrics fall flat.
The good news is the album’s three remaining songs, “The Hand Is Quicker,” “Red Velvet Seat” and “Owe It All,” kind of make up for the mis-steps. “The Hand…pivots on a stompy rhythm, syncopated horns and funkified guitar. Blacc’s vocal delivery dominates as he calls an unfaithful lover to task…”You used to call me sweetheart, you used to hold my head/You’ll get what’s coming to you, I’ll get my sweet revenge.”
Blacc takes the opposite tack on “Red Velvet Seat. “ A sweet and seductive slow jam, his velvety flow is cushioned by plinky guitar licks, fluttery piano and a finger-snapping groove.
The album closes with “Owe It All.” Over a breezy melody, the lyrics offer sanctified praise to a mother’s unconditional love.
Lift Your Spirit isn’t as persuasive as Good Things, but chalk that up to growing pains. It’s obvious that Aloe Blacc has plenty of talent and ambition. Hopefully on the next album he will drop the gimmicks and just let his old soul shine through.