"Blackmagic" by José James

José James
Blackmagic

Brownswood Recordings
2010

Review

...though sometimes the album sounds more like an outright Jazz record, it remains a testament to José James flexibility as an artist in that his voice fits perfectly whether it be over a jazzy track that would have made A Tribe Called Quest smile or one of the future sound of now producer Flying Lotus's trippy spaced out soundscapes. Here is a Soul record that knows precisely to what genre of music it belongs and yet manages to push the boundaries of what good Soul music is to such an extent that it will change your expectations for all other Soul music that is out there. To put it more succinctly, this record made me think even more that most radio Soul has gotten lazy.

The album opens with not so much a song, but more of a vibe. I'm speaking of course of "Code", the first of the three Flying Lotus produced tracks on the record. "Code" does not really sound like a Flying Lotus track to me (save for the slight static left on the track) and comparatively doesn't really sound like a José James track either. For a FlyLo track, it isn't out there enough and for a José James track it isn't Jazzy enough. However, it is (to use a Hip Hop term) an ill joint that will have you moving your entire body to the soulful vibe and may even have you grabbing your significant other off their feet for an impromptu dance session.

Now for a moment juxtapose "Code" with the song the follows it "Touch" and you might be a bit confused. "Touch" is just a straight up Jazz/Soul fusion song and yet, there's an edge to it. Almost a braggadocio in the way that a Hip Hop artist may carry a verse. Jazz? With an edge? At least to my ears: yes. Ok, you don't believe me. Let's move on the next track.

"Lay You Down" sounds like A Tribe Called Quest song with a singer over it instead of an MC. It would almost be too easy to just throw an MC (I vote for Elzhi) over it. Then you get to the end of the track and there's some straight up trumpet solos that just bring it all together. You've got a Hip Hop bassline, a Soul singer, and some Jazz brass all in a big pot of good music gumbo. Ditto for "Promise In Love".

That's what really grabbed me about this album is how deftly José James switches seamlessly from one sonic backdrop to another. Naturally I was drawn into the album because of the Flying Lotus produced tracks. On the sliding scale of Jazz to futuristic electronic goodness it would go - from most Jazzy to most futuristic - "Code", "Blackmagic", and "Made For Love".

"Made For Love" is just a flat out Flying Lotus track featuring José James. while "Blackmagic" is more of a collaboration between two styles and they are both amazing tracks. You'll be singing along to "Blackmagic"

In the darkness
In the darkness
In the darkness we make love
Blackmagic the promise the premise the endless the scene we travel
On to arrive at the very beginning of where we started
Journeying onward into the black and deeper into shadow
Life will bring trust
It will bring and install the memory you unravel

I'm telling you if I gush more about "Blackmagic" the song it won't be enough. It is that crazy good. "Made For Love" is a close second to the FlyLo produced tracks, but "Blackmagic" is sonic gold.

Thankfully all the styles are blended into each other such that you don't have all the pure jazz tracks grouped together with the more hip-hop and soul entries.

Speaking of the more-Jazz oriented songs, take a listen to "Save Your Love For Me". There's nothing original lyrically but it's the performance that sells it. Sure you've heard it a bunch of times, but the band is tight in an "I'd love to see them play live" sort of way. You've got this smoothed out voice singing over this amazing Jazz band highlighted at the end by a duet between James and a piano that just brings joy to the listener. This is Soul music and I know it because my own soul feels fuller and lighter just listening to it. "The Greater Good" is another example of this.

So what bad can I say about the album? Well, there are a few tracks that are a bit too sleepy for me but perhaps they are meant for more of the Jazz crowd than for a Hip Hop/Soul/Electronic weirdness lover like myself.

Jose' James has created an album that to me demonstrates that you can make a record that embraces a particular genre - in this case Soul - and still push the boundaries to put an original spin on the music. This album just floored me and impressed me and makes me want to seek out more albums like it. Sadly, I may have to wait for Jose' James next release to find it's equal. I have no idea why this album has had so little fanfare but well, I guess that's why we continue writing for this very website.

4.071 out of 5

Track Ratings

1. Code (04:55) 4
2. Touch (04:19) 4
3. Lay You Down (05:06) 5
4. Promise in Love (04:36) 4
5. Warrior (05:55) 3
6. Made for Love (03:51) 5
7. Save Your Love for Me (03:33) 5
8. The Greater Good (04:19) 5
9. Blackmagic (04:03) 5
10. Detroit Loveletter (04:02) 4
11. Love Conversation (05:16) 4
12. Beauty (04:10) 3
13. No Tellin' (02:39) 3
14. [unknown] (10:32) 3