Last summer, we told you about the Muddy Waters 100 project, on which former Waters band guitarist John Primer and a collection of friends paid tribute to the late blues master with a set of updated takes on a number of Waters classics, many incorporating such modern effects as electronic drums and drum loop programming to help achieve producer Larry Skoller‘s goal of demonstrating that “in one way or another, these sounds all lead back to Muddy Waters”. While that revisiting-the-classics approach certainly seems to have resonated with blues fans and critics alike, with Muddy Waters 100 having earned blues album of the year nominations in both this year’s Grammy and Living Blues awards, this rootsy new release from West Coast sensation Fantastic Negrito also serves as a nice example of the influence the blues has had on the broader music industry through the decades, with sounds ranging from Lead Belly to the Beatles to Prince and Gary Clark Jr., blending in its fair share of alternative, hip-hop, and rock along the way.
Negrito, you may recall, catapulted to fame last year after winning NPR’s inaugural Tiny Desk Concert Contest. Shortly after, his song “An Honest Man” could be heard as the opening theme on Amazon’s original series Hand of God, with Negrito also making several guest appearances on the show throughout the season.
After a couple of powerful EPs, Negrito has released his much-anticipated debut full-length album in Last Days of Oakland (Blackball Universe), a raw, insightful recording that tackles such timely issues as race, police violence, economic and wage disparity, and the current state of his longtime home of Oakland, California, through a rich combination of grooves and catchy riffs that Negrito describes as “blues with a punk attitude”.
The magic of Negrito isn’t simply in the impressive diversity of sounds he presents, but rather the unique, creative manner in which he’s able to transition from one sound to another within his tunes. Take, for example, “Lost in a Crowd” – the song that helped Negrito capture top prize in last year’s NPR contest and that he revisits here – which starts on a driving, in-your-face cadence before switching to a vulnerable, flowing refrain of “we’re just people, lonely people, you and I”, complete with a few “la la la, la la la, la la la”s at the conclusion. Or “Rant Rushmore”, which fluctuates between peaceful, Beatles-esque falsetto “amen”s and a pounding “bitch, eat my cancer /then I know we’re really dancin'”.
Or “The Nigga Song”, which begins on what you could easily envision as a Sesame Street ITAL segment were it not for the controversial nature of the word, with gritty, creeping lyrics that include “I dropped the e, added the a, and killed the r”, before moving to a rapping delivery of such lyrics as “always try to tame a nigga, always try to blame a nigga, always try to shame a nigga, don’t we got game we niggas?”
While about half of the tracks on Last Days aren’t ones you’re probably going to be able to play around the office or children due to explicit language (which is something of a shame, being that the kids would really dig this guy’s sounds), one can’t help but admire the passion and authenticity with which Negrito delivers these lyrical observations, or the part they play in the overall artistry of his performances.
Here’s a quick rundown of the album’s other songs, a number of which – along with a few interludes – also include snippets from man-on-the-street interviews regarding such topics as the “new” vs. the “old” Oakland, the job market, and race relations:
“Working Poor” – This raw opening track pairs a Gary Clark Jr.-ish vibe, a hip-hop edge, and some steely guitar riffs to offer a hard-nosed, “keep on knockin’ but I can’t get in”-themed commentary on the issue of low pay.
“About a Bird” – It’s hard to resist the allure of this vocally diverse number, on which Negrito moves from the vulnerable, breathy begging of “take a chance on me” to the heavy thumping of “first she wanted me, then she wanted me dead”, with a stinging guitar solo also thrown in.
“Scary Woman” – Negrito really cuts loose on this strumming, uptempo track in the vein of Jimbo Mathus’ Squirrel Nut Zippers, laced with some scary good surf-style guitar licks.
“Interlude 1 – What Do You Do” – An especially relevant interlude in which members of the masses respond to the question of “Why do you think that a lot of young black kids are getting killed by the police?” over an acoustic, Lead Belly-style musical bed driven by handclaps.
“In the Pines” – The album’s sole cover song, this is a unique, passionate take on the creeping Lead Belly track.
“Hump Through the Winter” – Negrito pushes things “a little harder, a little louder” with this groove-filled, hip-hop rocking number that’s a modern-day, Big City equivalent to the classic “you gotta move” blues theme.
“The Worst” – A funky, rapping commentary on greed, money and power featuring some soulful R&B female backing vocals.
“Nothing Without You” – Just when we thought we had Negrito all figured out on this album filled with interesting transitions and turns, he surprises us one last time by closing on this beautiful, straightforward and passionate ballad that could easily be mistaken for something you might have heard from the late Prince.
From tender to intense, spiritual to angry, Negrito covers the gamut both emotionally and musically on Last Days of Oakland, further reinforcing our earlier impressions of Negrito as one of the most charismatic, creative, and engaging artists on the scene. It may not be your father’s blues he’s singing, but there’s no denying that Negrito has a bright future, delivering his own unique and entertaining style of music that’s as deeply rooted in the past as it is tuned in to the present.