Aloe Blacc may sound like a throwback, but he's the very model of modern success. At first, he was just a voice, crooning the hook on Swedish DJ Avicii's worldwide No. 1 Wake Me Up and party-starting on Ellen DeGeneres' gone-viral Super Bowl ad.
Retro-minded peer Bruno Mars infiltrated our brains in much the same way — penning and producing hits, singing hooks for Travie McCoy and B.O.B., working radio, TV and social media, making us like him before we even knew who he was. As far as business plans go, it's a hot one to emulate.
Born Egbert Nathaniel Dawkins III, which is actually more memorable than his stage handle, Blacc is extremely ambitious on breakout LP Lift Your Spirit — too ambitious at times, trying on so many masks you wonder who this guy is. But much like Mars, the Panamanian-American displays moments of such starshine, especially with his sepia-toned R&B vocal, it's hard not to like him.
Or, in some cases, love him. Can You Do This?, from DeGeneres' Big Game ad for Beats Music, is one of the most ferociously fun cuts of the year, nothing less than a 21st century re-do of Wilson Pickett's Land of 1,000 Dances. "Grab your shotgun / Cock it back / Shoot the sun / Until the sky is black" — and then boom, the barely three-minute cut ignites into a Watusi dance-off, all call-and-response and surfy drums and guitars.
If Can You Do This? reaches back to the '60s — and reinforces the 35-year-old's keen musical education — Blacc's current hit, The Man, is all about co-opting a '70s touchy-feel. Sorta-sampling Your Song by Elton John and Bernie Taupin, both of whom get credit, his first legit hit is a daily affirmation: "Well you can tell everybody / Go ahead and tell everybody." And then: "I'm the man, I'm the man, I'm the man."
Frequent Eminem producer DJ Khalil oversees most of the shape-shifting record, including the Prince-like simplicity of Red Velvet Seat and the New Orleans doo-wop of Chasing. Such is Blacc's buzz, no less than Grammy-champ Pharrell also drops in, producing Love Is the Answer, which takes us in yet another artistic direction: Stevie Wonder in the '80s.
Blacc is so eager to nod to his heroes — and show off his encyclopedic brain — that the influences get muddled as the album gets deeper, especially on Curtis Mayfield-Jimmy Cliff hybrid The Hand Is Quicker and socially conscious Marvin Gaye nod Ticking Bomb. They're not bad, mind you, but you start to imagine Blacc unveiling his impressions at some second-rate Vegas casino. A little homage is fine. But when the real Aloe Blacc shines through — for instance on an acoustic version of Wake Me Up that focuses on his voice — we like that guy even better.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.