Listening to the recent retrospective Miles Davis at Newport 1955-1975: The Bootleg Series Volume 4, I thought of Kanye West.
No one, of course, would be more delighted to hear this than West. The legendary jazzman is one of many visionaries to whom West has compared himself over the years (Steve Jobs, Leonardo da Vinci, Henry Ford, Walt Disney ... the list goes on and on).
The four-disc Davis at Newport culls 40 songs from two decades' worth of gigs at the Newport Jazz Festival, connecting the threads of his early swinging soul to the furious, cacophonous genius he embodied post-Bitches Brew. West is only a decade into his own solo career, but his path already looks awfully similar.
That West considers Davis an influence is no surprise; like West, Davis cherished the idea of experimental expression. Post-Kanye, we're seeing that influence trickle to a new crop of rappers and producers whose music nods not only to Yeezus, but to genre-melding pioneers like Davis, Herbie Hancock and Gil Scott-Heron. The spectrum of sounds these young bloods produce owes as much to jazz, soul and funk as it does to beats and rhymes.
We're living in a new hip-hop jazz age. Free your mind and swim in.
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The past year has brought two prime examples of this new style: You're Dead!, by producer and DJ Flying Lotus (a relative, it bears mentioning, of Alice and John Coltrane); and To Pimp a Butterfly, the ambitious LP from Kendrick Lamar. Both feature moments of sizzling musicality and ethereal fluidity.
A major contributor to both albums was producer-bassist Steven Bruner, formerly of thrash punk outfit Suicidal Tendencies and better known as Thundercat. In July, Bruner dropped The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam, a spacey, six-song solo EP that contains no rapping at all. In fact, the only real voice on the EP is Bruner's gentle, reverb-steeped falsetto — think Boz Scaggs channeling Bon Iver, or vice versa.
If that doesn't sound funky to you, then you haven't heard Them Changes, a low-riding beast of a jam powered by the heaviest, stankiest groove of the year. Thundercat's deeply distorted plucking sets the tone for his musicians — including Flying Lotus and jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington — who likewise stomp through three minutes of warped-into-orbit funk as a done-wrong Bruner coos about the "black hole in my chest" where his heart used to be. He's not the only one reeling; Them Changes is an utter knockout.
Bruner brings the bass out to play elsewhere (see Song for the Dead) but opts to make most of the EP a swirling mist of vocals, bass, chimes and ambient noise. All of it harkens, in a dreamlike way, to the sunset-soul playbooks of Michael McDonald or the Isley Brothers, but Thundercat's trippy soundscapes are thoroughly 21st (if not 31st) century — soul music for a deeply altered state.
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In a similar vein comes the Internet, an L.A. group best known for their connection to rebellious hip-hop collective Odd Future. That link boosted the profile of leaders Syd tha Kyd and Mike Martians, but, as with Odd Future affiliate Frank Ocean, their music largely transcends that crew's rougher edges.
The Internet's lush and sensual third album, Ego Death, released in June, does feature a cameo by Odd Future figurehead Tyler, the Creator, but otherwise, it belongs entirely to Syd and Mike.
The 23-year-old, openly gay Syd, in particular, comes off like a star in waiting. Primarily a DJ with Odd Future, here she moves behind the microphone, crooning assured come-ons to her lady loves in hushed, smoky tones. "Now she wanna f--- with me, live a life of luxury," she coos about an admirer in the first second of opening track Get Away. Now there's a mood-setter.
That Syd never hides her sexuality is significant — how many R&B albums feature intragender love lyrics like those on Girl: "Would you let me call you my girl, my girlfriend, my girlfriend? / I can give you the life you deserve, just say the word, baby." She sings about losing herself in her lover's arms as society burns around them (Penthouse Cloud), running from the cops like Bonnie and Bonnie (Partners in Crime Part Three) or gently breaking it off with a girl who's "perfect on paper" (Something's Missing).
Martians' slow-rolling synthesizers sustain a melty mood throughout, and the album's live instrumentation (the Internet performs live as a six-piece band) lends it an aurally tangible, real-world quality — the slinky bass and smoky strumming of Special Affair; the snare clicks and silky keyboards of Under Control. Go With It is the album's only proper rap song, but it's a joy, with Vic Mensa's vibrant verse skipping atop a funky, juju-tinged beat.
Ego Death is a cohesive, immersive slice of gender-fluid R&B, and if there's any justice, it'll nudge Syd tha Kyd closer to household-name status. She's only half of the Internet, but it's her you want in your phone.
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Even younger than Syd tha Kyd — but no less incandescent a talent — is Chance the Rapper, a Chicago wunderkind co-signed by everyone from Kanye to James Blake. His albums have all been self-released as free downloads, allowing him to flex his most ambitious, bohemian muscles.
May saw Chance drop Surf, a new album credited to his five-piece band, Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment, starring Nico Segal (the titular Donnie Trumpet) on brass. The album features so many collaborators and guest stars — J. Cole, Big Sean, Erykah Badu, Janelle Monae — that Chance's time on the mic is surprisingly limited. Yet he remains its centerpiece and soul, the guy who sets Surf's magnificently rosy tone, even when he's not the one rapping.
The shimmering Wanna Be Cool is nothing short of a motivational lecture for kids with little money and less self-esteem: "Let's remember that shopping at Payless / It just means that you pay less / it don't make you bae-less / If you don't get retweets, it don't mean you say less," spits guest rapper Kyle. Familiar preaches the gospel of individuality by blasting "cardboard cutout" types; Slip Slide is about finding independence through resilience, about how, as Busta Rhymes raps, "you'll only be deemed worthy if you stand tall."
The music is key to Surf's endless uplift. The choirly glory of Sunday Candy stems from Peter Cottontale's swinging pianos; Familiar's freshness from its finger-snapping Jackson 5 guitars. And everywhere, at all points, there is Segal, blasting his brass like a champion, leading the Social Experiment up a rainbow path of enlightenment. It might be the best use of horns in hip-hop outside the Dirty South. (Outkast's SpottieOttieDopaliscious or Ludacris' Rollout, take your pick.)
Surf sounds mixed and engineered to make listeners smile, and Chance the Rapper wisely doesn't hog the credit for himself. At 22, he has the tools to be a superstar, but it's the ensemble around him that makes Surf a delightful adventure.
Hey, even Miles Davis had a pretty good band.
Contact Jay Cridlin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.