It’s been nearly nine years since the Robert Glasper Experiment released Black Radio II, the second, Grammy-winning installment of his mélange of contemporary jazz, beat-heavy hip-hop and neo-soul melodies. Since then, Glasper disbanded the Experiment band, embarked on soundtrack work such as the 2020 film The Photograph and the Bel-Air TV series with Terrace Martin, and engaged himself in damaging social-media controversies. There has been a resurgence in popular support for jazz, too, and that’s partly thanks to Glasper’s (he contributed to Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 masterwork To Pimp a Butterfly) as well as key recordings by Martin, Kamasi Washington, Nubya Garcia, Floating Points and many others.
As an aesthetic, Black Radio may no longer carry the same vital energy as Glasper’s original statement, which pushed back against the marginalization of “real” jazz from the pop mainstream. He won that argument. But the Glasper sound remains. “I’m in this R&B shit now,” he said in a recent interview. Black Radio III should fulfill expectations generated by the first, excellent 2011 album (as well as its solid but less revelatory 2013 follow-up). There are starry, honeyed voices; J Dilla-esque rhythms, and themes of love and community renewal.
A few surprises lie amidst the familiar pleasures. Esperanza Spalding sings delightfully in French over the funk fusion of “While We Speak.” Justin Tyson’s drumming underneath H.E.R.’s lead vocal on “Better Than I Imagined” give that track a dynamic pulse. It closes with an entreaty from Meshell Ndegeocello to her lover as she alludes to a distance created by the pandemic, and her warm baritone feels as comforting as a blanket. Meanwhile, Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” has gotten the R&B treatment before – see Anthony David’s 2011 cover – but any interpretation by Lalah Hathaway is always welcome. It’s great to hear Posdnous, too, as the De La Soul hero slides alongside Musiq Soulchild over the deep house of “Everybody Love.”
Despite the Experiment’s demise, former band members such as bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Chris Dave add instrumentation. Other players include DJ Jahi Sundance as well as DJ Jazzy Jeff, the latter who chips in on “Black Superhero,” a roundelay between BJ the Chicago Kid, Killer Mike, and Big K.R.I.T. The best moments retain Glasper’s jazz perspective, whether it’s his own piano flurries that close “Shine” or the gruff, emotive presence of Gregory Porter on “It Don’t Matter.” But too many numbers regurgitate the same Black adult contemporary template, making it difficult to distinguish “It Don’t Matter” from Jennifer Hudson’s “Out of My Hands.” And the album closes with a handful of weaker cuts like Ty Dolla $ign and “Bright Lights.” As an enjoyable fan-service sequel intended to offer music of comfort and solace, Black Radio III is fine. As an artist, Glasper is allowed to get into his beatmaker bag, relaunch the Black Radio brand and leave the New Jazz Thing bleeding edge to others. But one can’t help but wish the stakes were a bit higher.