Black and White America, Lenny Kravitz’s ninth studio album, is technically a very fine album. But if you’re not willing to overlook the fact that Lenny Kravitz sidesteps talking about race in America — which the title of his album suggests he will — then you might understandably dismiss the album as artistically dishonest and pandering to the pop culture machine.
“People used to yell obscenities and spit at them,” revealed the 47-year-old Grammy-award-winner about his parent’s interracial marriage during the tumultuous 1960s. He continues, “and this was in New York City, not in the South.”
Lenny Kravitz was born in New York City in 1964, to Sy Kravitz, a Jewish television producer with NBC, and the pioneering black actress, Roxie Roker, best known for her role on 70s the television sitcom, The Jeffersons.
WATCH LENNY KRAVITZ PERFORMING ‘AMERICAN WOMAN’ ON ‘TODAY’:
[MSNBCMSN video=”http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/32545640″ w=”592″ h=”346″ launch_id=”44371180″ id=”msnbc6d39bb”]
In a recent article in USA Today Kravitz discusses his new album saying, “I was channel-surfing in the Bahamas one night and came across this documentary. I don’t remember what it was called, but it had all these people talking about President Obama. I know that there’s racism, but to hear people voice it in such a hateful way — I had to write a rebuttal.”
(Spoiler alert: Lenny Kravitz doesn’t rebut racism in his new album, Black and White America.)
It’s risky business when artists tack provocative titles onto their work and fail to follow-up on said title as if being provocative itself justifies the work. (Not to mention it insults the audience, eh hem). The initial shock value quickly turns to chagrin.
UPTOWN MAGAZINE: Behind the scenes with Lenny Kravitz>
Given his body of work, this should be little surprise since, after all, Lenny Kravitz is well-known for playing it relatively safe: belting out touchy-feely ballads over rough chords in torn jeans. And while it garnered him attention over twenty years ago, it now feels clichéd and sophomoric. Making socially conscious music is more Tracy Chapman, or someone less popular (read: commercially less palatable.)
In a recent interview with Tavis Smiley Kravitz shares his first day of school in California where a fellow classmate screeches, “Your dad is white!” The emotional charge revealed in his talk with Tavis is nowhere to be found on the album. What could account for this omission, other than avoidance?
The ambition of Black and White America is evidenced in the experiments with sound and styles (e.g. reggae, funk, soul, soft rock) while remaining pop friendly. Technically speaking, the album is solid, and will likely do well in dancehalls and indie radio stations. A couple of his songs might even find their way on urban radio.
The song “Push” was dreamed up while shooting in the award-winning film Precious, in which Kravitz played a male nurse.
Another song “Boongie Drop” (featuring Jay-Z and DJ Military) was inspired by the nightlife of the Bahamas, but particularly the full-figured women who inhabit the night spots. This reggae-rump shaking tune is sure to be a hit. (Note: “Boongie” in the Bahamas means booty.)
The album was created in isolation in the Bahamas where Kravitz says he stayed in “a tiny, 400-person community” and touched up in Paris where the singer-songwriter also has a residence.
The album’s engagement with vintage soul, funk, rock, and hip-hop is a testament to the artist’s dexterity as a musician-singer-songwriter. However, while Kravitz nails down the sound of various genres that he grew up listening he misses the consciousness that those artists had that birthed some of their biggest hits.
The song “Life Ain’t Never Been Better Than It Is Now” concludes with a funk session, a nod to the late James Brown. While the admiration for the legend is noticeable, it’s unfortunate that he didn’t take notes on the late artist who didn’t find it contradictory to be both funky and unabashedly socially conscious in his music (think: “Say it Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud”) The omission of a social consciousness is jarring especially since racially-inspired violence hits close to home.
Since Lenny Kravitz is fond of sampling artists perhaps he might listen to a few of my favorite artists. I’m thinking: Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” (practically an anthem for the civil rights movement), Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy, Mercy, Me” and of course there’s Cheryl Lynn’s disco hit from 1978 “Got to Be Real.”
Until Mr. Kravitz can bring it the way artists worth their salt have been for many years, especially when we’re talking black musical traditions, I’ll be revisiting the oldies and turning the volume up on my favorite part of Ms. Lynn’s disco hit — real real real real real real…