By Eleni P. Austin
Here are some Fun Facts about Lenny Kravitz: He is a musical autodidact. He is distantly related to “Today” show weather man, Al Roker. He is a furniture designer. He has been nominated for nine Grammy Awards and has won four. He’s an actor. He is named for his uncle who died in the Korean War and posthumously received the Distinguished Service Cross and Medal Of Honor. He attended high school with Slash. He’s appeared in animated form on “The Simpsons” and he just curated his own photography exhibit in New York City.
Born in New York in 1964, he is the only child of actress Roxie Roker and news producer and former Jazz promoter Sy Kravitz. Lenny began banging on pots and pans as a toddler, and by age five he knew he wanted to be a musician. He quickly mastered drums and guitar, and he experience a musical epiphany in the second grade when he saw the Jackson 5 perform at Madison Square Garden. They immediately became his favorite group.
As a kid, his parents’ record collection was a huge source of inspiration, pointing him toward Motown, Philly Soul, Stax, Aretha, Al Green, etc. Because of his dad’s background he was also exposed to Jazz greats like Bobby Short, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie. Although his African American mother was Christian and his white dad was Jewish, Lenny was raised without religious affiliation. Following what he described as a spiritual experience, he began identifying as a non-denominational Christian. During his New York years he split his time between his parents’ upper East Side apartment and his maternal grandparents’ place in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.
In 1974, Roxie Roker landed a role on “The Jeffersons” television series, (ironically, as half of an upper East Side interracial couple). The Kravitz family relocated to Los Angeles and his mom persuaded Lenny to join the California Boys Choir. He received Classical training, singing with the Metropolitan Opera and performing Mahler’s Third Symphony at the Hollywood Bowl. Conversely, L.A. gave him a less formal musical education, as he delved into the sounds of Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Black Sabbath John Lennon, Bob Marley and the Grateful Dead. He also began exploring the music of Fela Kuti, Miles Davis and Pharoh Sanders. As a student a Beverly Hills High School, he enrolled in their prestigious music program. After graduation he started his career working as a session musician. When his parents divorced in 1985, he returned to New York City.
It was during his tenure in NYC when he met actress Lisa Bonet at a New Edition concert. Best known for her role as Denise Huxtable on the phenomenally popular “Cosby Show,” the pair bonded over their shared ethnicities. (Lisa’s mom is Jewish and her dad is African American). The couple eloped in 1987, and their daughter, Zoe arrived a year later. Lenny began concentrating on a solo career. Initially, he took the name, Romeo Blue and sported blue contact lenses.
Luckily this gimmicky phase was short-lived and he returned to his own name. Holed up in a Hoboken recording studio, he wrote what would become his first album. Shopping it to labels, he was dismayed to hear the perfunctory criticism that his music “wasn’t white enough or black enough.” Fortunately, Virgin Records decided to take a chance on him.
Released in 1989, His debut, Let Love Rule, was basically a one-man band, as Lenny played nearly all the music himself. A Psychedelic-Soul-Rock-Funk hybrid, critical reception was mixed, (the consensus was his influences overwhelmed his individual style). It reached #61 on the American charts but the album fared better internationally. Lenny hit the road opening separate tours for Tom Petty, Bob Dylan and David Bowie. A year later, at Madonna’s behest, he co-wrote and produced what became her ninth #1 single, “Justify My Love.” An interesting excursion into Trip-Hop, the song was accompanied by a controversial video that featured images of bisexuality and sadomasochism. Predictably, MTV banned the video, and more predictably, Madonna monetized the experience by releasing the video-single on a VHS cassette.
Lenny’s sophomore effort, Mamma Said, arrived in the Spring of 1991. Featuring contributions from Slash and Sean Lennon, the album was written and recorded as his marriage was coming apart at the seams. (The couple divorced In 1993, but remain good friends). Despite his emotional turmoil, the album was a success, hitting #8 in the U.K. and achieving Platinum record sales in the U.S.
As assured as Mamma Said was, 1993’s Are You Going To Go My Way proved to be Lenny’s watershed record. Adding lead guitarist Craig Ross to the mix, (a collaboration that continues to this day), gave his sound a harder edge. The album’s title-track infectiously channels his Hendrix/Lennon/Mayfield/Prince obsessions but still asserts his individual style. It became his first Top 20 hit in America and reached #1 in the U.K. and Australia. Finally, it was official, Lenny Kravitz was a Rock N’ Roll superstar.
In the ensuing 25 years, Lenny has averaged a new record every three or four years. The hard rockin’ Circus, arrived in late 1995, just a couple of months before his mom lost her battle with breast cancer. 1998’s 5 was a sly fusion of Rock, Electronica and Soul. Lenny was released in 2001 and featured mega hits like “Fly Away” and his cover of the Guess Who’s “American Woman.” 2004’s Baptism was originally envisioned as his Funk record, but ended up hewing more closely to the Let Love Rule paradigm. It was also the first time in his career when he received mostly negative reviews.
Four years later he rebounded with It Is Time For A Love Revolution, which debuted at #4 on the Billboard 200. Three years elapsed before his long-awaited Funk Album arrived. Black And White America was gripping and deeply personal, the cover featured a childhood photo with a peace sign painted on his forehead and the word “peace” painted on his face. In 2014 he released Strut a collection of carnal Soul songs.
In between making music and co-parenting Zoe, (now nearly 30 and an actress in her own right), Lenny found time to act in movies like “Precious,” and “Hunger Games,” and the TV series “Star.” In 2003 he opened Kravitz Design in New York City. He’s also managed to date panoply of models and actresses, De rigueur for Rock Stars. Now he has just released his 11th studio album, Raise Vibration.
The record opens with the sanctified stomp of “We Can Get It Together.” The arrangement is powered by phased guitar, churchy organ, Moog synthesizer, tambourine, thundering drums and even didgeridoo. The lyrics look inward; “Deliver Me from loneliness, deliver me from selfishness, deliver me from brokenness, deliver me so we can get it together.” But the ultimate message is optimistic.
Several songs here split the difference between spiritual and corporeal love. Stacked harmonies connect with rubbery bass and a see-saw rhythm on the keyboard driven “Gold Dust.” It’ is something of an ecumenical pep talk; “The spirit thrives down deep inside, that’s where it’s home/So let’s break the ties where evil lies and get in the zone.” Sort of a Zoomba workout for the soul.
Meanwhile, “Ride” offers his best approximation of Yacht Rock, as jangly acoustic guitar connects with popping bass lines, squiggly mini-moog, a kick-drum beat and a wash of Fender Rhodes. The lyrics swap out beatific devotion for more temporal concerns; “I could only dream of heaven, when I gaze into the sky/But I know I’ve found my angel here, in this life, in this life.”
Over the years, Lenny has taken some flak for his flowery, Hippie-Dippie outlook, but on this record, his gaze feels more apocalyptic. Take “Who Really Are The Monsters.” The arrangement and instrumentation offer a smorgasbord of styles; leapfrogging from dystopian Metallic crunch to a Latin Funk workout, to Hendrix-ian guitar fantasia. Robotic synths and Linn drum percussion bump up against congas and timbales, shards of electric guitar, rock-ribbed bass and a wailing sax solo. The lyrics take the Military Industrial Complex to task for perpetuating for-profit wars, noting “It’s all about the money.”
Additionally, the title track is half galumph-y minuet, half cri de Coeur. Sinewy guitars wrap around a walloping beat as Lenny offers tips toward maintaining a non-violent revolution; “Just like Jesus as he teaches, do it like the Lord, just like Martin got it startin’ and without a sword/Just like Gandhi went to war and never used a gun, we can join together and through love we’ll get it done.” The song concludes with a traditional war chant from the Lakota Indian tribe.
To paraphrase the legendary George Clinton and Parliament, Lenny Knows that we want the Funk and he gives up the Funk. “Low” opens with explosive percussion, thumpy bass runs, a dry ice rush of whoosh Moog notes, plaintive piano and some boogaloo guitar. His creamy falsetto vocals get an extra assist from the late great King Of Pop (Lenny and Michael Jackson collaborated on and off for decades before his untimely death in 2009), and a peppery horn section echoes the elemental joy of Earth, Wind & Fire.
“The Majesty Of Love” is an intergalactic groover that blends Tinkly cowbell Funk with a four-on-the-floor Disco beat. Shang-a-lang guitar crests over twitchy rhythms, a strafing horn section and gritty keys. The saxophone solo recalls the nobility of James Brown side man, Maceo Parker.
The album’s two best tracks, “Johnny Cash” and “It’s Enough” juxtapose Lenny’s vulnerabilities and strengths. The former opens with Squally power chords before downshifting into what is best described as Country-Soul Psychedelia. Twangy acoustic riffs lap around lush strings, pedal steel and stately piano. Searching for some emotional rescue, the lyrics recall the day his mother died. Staying with producer Rick Rubin when he got the news, remarkably, he was comforted by the warm embrace of Johnny Cash and his wife, June Carter. All he wants his latest paramour to do is “Hold me like Johnny Cash, when I lost my mother, Whisper in my ear, Just like June Carter.”
On the other end of the musical spectrum, the latter is the album’s magnum opus. Summoning the spirits of the late Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfiend, Bobby Womack and Prince, the track unfolds like the best Blaxploitation jam you’ve never heard. Clocking in at nearly eight minutes, Wah-wah guitar slithers over rumbling bass, Hammond B3, bongos, ominous synths, layered vocals Tough-talking lyrics tackle hot button topics like Black Lives Matter, the Parkland School shootings, war-torn countries and our frayed eco-system. “It’s enough,” he insists, “When the whole wide world is corrupt…and we all are just getting fucked.”
A couple of tracks don’t quite pass muster. It’s clear Lenny is hoping “Here’s To Love” will be viewed as his “Imagine.” But it lands a little closer to Foreigner’s bombastic “I Want To Know What Love Is.” (Yeesh). “5 More Days Of Summer” pitches it’s tent between Huey Lewis And The News’ “Workin’ For A Livin’” and Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom,” but a cheerleader chant of “1,2,3,4,5 days till summer” near the end tips the song into icky Bay City Rollers territory.
The record closes with the bare-bones Quiet Storm of “I’ll Always Be Inside Your Soul.” Anchored by bloopy 808 percussion, ARP strings and smooth keys, it’s Lover man Lenny to the rescue; “I’m in your eyes, I’m in your mind… just like a tree, I’ll watch you grow.” It splits the difference between soothing and stalker-y.
Raise Vibration is Lenny Kravitz’s most satisfying effort since Are You Going To Go My Way. Equal parts “woke” and playful, it continues to honor musical mentors, but charts its own course. Politically and culturally relevant, dark themes are buoyed by trenchant melodies, crisp instrumentation and soulful vocals. Dedicated to the spirit of Prince Rogers Nelson, it attempts to replicate His Purple Majesty’s epochal Sign O’ The Times, and it nearly hits that mark.