Lenny Kravitz – Black and White America (2011)

Posted: August 17, 2011 in Music

Depending on who you are, the last time you heard Lenny Kravitz was anywhere between 3 and 10 years ago. With more talent in his little finger than many artists could ever hope to have, Kravitz has etched his name into the annuls of rock history with his enigmatic style and personality over the last 20 years.

With a career now spanning its fourth decade, Kravitz has come a long way since his dreadlocked introduction to the scene in 1989. Lenny has expanded, naturally, since the psychedelic style of his debut release Let Love Rule, and has continued to incorporate different styles and influences as his career has progressed. With each album, he has added more and more to his repertoire, at times playing rock, soul, rhythm and blues, funk, reggae, folk, and pop on the same album and often combining styles within the same song.

But since his 2000 release of Greatest Hits, Kravitz has failed to grab the commercial success he had early in his career. There were a few albums released over the last ten years – all critically acclaimed – but from a sales and radio perspective, the attention paid to his work has dwindled a bit.

Lenny hopes to reverse that trend with his forthcoming release Black and White America (scheduled for an August 30th release on Atlantic Records.) It is actually a piece that Kravitz began working on eight years ago, but was shelved due to songwriting sessions for 2004’s Baptism release. But in the last three, quiet years, Lenny has finished off these tracks, playing all the roles of singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, record producer and arranger on maybe the most important release of his career.

Important in the sense that the album has to be solid. The music world in general is segregating into so many different genres and cliques that cross-cultured artists are having a hard time gaining acceptance in the realm of modern radio. But if anyone has the muscle to pull everything back together as one, it’s Kravitz.


And what better way than by re-visiting his past.

“A lot of this record seems to be influenced by what I was listening to in junior high and high school,” says Kravitz. “Soul, R&B, bands like Earth, Wind and Fire, Quincy Jones productions like the Brothers Johnson — these were the type of records that taught me so much about producing and arranging music.”

And that influence is immediately noticeable in the opener “Black and White America,” a funk-inspired, bass-slapping flashback to the disco/soul era of the 70s. As expected, the lyrics speak of equality – and considering the album was almost titled Negrophilia, it comes as no suprise to find a racially charged message here.

I first heard “Come and Get It” this last February, when Kravitz was a surprise performer at the 2011 NBA All-Star game. I liked it then, and I like it even more now. As funky as it gets, Kravitz gives us a modern-day James Brown-channeling performance that is powerful, sexy, and full of attitude. The arrangement is basic, but the beat is catchy as hell. I’ve always liked Lenny best when he lets the animal loose, and this is a prime example.

“In The Black” finds Lenny teetering between the pop/hippie vibes that many remember him for. It’s a spacey, medium-tempo track of love and happiness that is bound to please fans that may have lost touch with the artist over the years. Again, nothing too complicated here, but I’m starting to think that stripping away the distractions may be Lenny’s intent with this release.

Always one to belt out a true soul song now and then, Kravitz dials in to his softer side with “Liquid Jesus.” With it’s groovy beat and infectious bass line, I can easily see Don Cornelius grooving away to this on the set of Soul Train. It wasn’t the best track on the disc, but it offered up a nice shift.

We go from idle to 4th gear with the next track, the rock-heavy “Rock Star City Life.” The guitars are crunchy here, but Lenny keeps everything reigned in pretty tight. The arrangement expands a bit, and the added complexity makes for one of the more memorable moments on the record.

Kravitz has worked with rap mogul Jay-Z in the past, so it wasn’t unexpected to see another collaboration here with “Boongie Drop.” Added to the mix is DJ Military, and the end result is an reggae-flavored made-for-the-dance-club that for me, missed the mark. A little research tells me “boongie” is an urban term for a Bahamian woman’s backside, and if anything smelled like boongie on this album, it was this track…

The stench passed quickly, however, as we were immediately treated to the albums best track, “Stand.” Back to rocking and rolling, Lenny stands tall with an inspirational track built with hand-clapping, toe-tapping beats and excellent harmonized vocals. It’s currently on radio rotation, and should have little trouble finding the top of the charts. The comical video is featured below.

“Superlove” is another soul-driven track that again hits the time-machine and dials back to circa 1975. It didn’t feel very inspired, and this time the near nakedness of the structure actually hurt the effort. Seeing that this was the first track I didn’t really care for, though, I’m using the “get out of jail free” card and moving on…

The inner-hippie resurfaces for “Everything,” but maintains enough of a rock overtone to keep it pretty accessible. Kravitz shows he still knows how to rip the guitar strings, with a emphatic solo midway. The track didn’t blow me away, but was a nice piece of the pie.

“I Can’t Be Without You” had a strange almost-gothic feel to it, more likely to be on a Bauhaus album than a Lenny Kravitz release, but hey – Lenny has always been experimental and willing to reach for new horizons, so why not. I don’t see this being the highlight of the record, but it was – if nothing else – interesting.

Jumping styles yet again. we get a blues-heavy treat in “Looking Back On Love.” What is compelling here is that most blues-influenced songs stay pretty simple, but there are tons of layers here with soft innuendos from keyboards, guitars, horns, and backing vocals. Considering everything was tracked by Kravitz personally, I couldn’t help but be impressed with this slowed-down jam.

“Life Ain’t Ever Been Better Than It Is Now” draws immediate attention to itself with the length of the title, but that’s about it. It carries a similar funk to the albums second track, but pales in comparison. Even a cool trumpet solo could rescue it from being forgettable, but I knew I wasn’t going to dig all sixteen tracks here – so a second miss isn’t all that distracting.

An interesting piano/synthesizer combo opens “The Faith Of A Child” which has the love and peace message in full effect. Lenny has earned the right to write and sing about anything he wants, but I couldn’t help feeling this track would have been better served on a benefit album of various artists. I imagine this will get some attention from some charitable organization and be highlighted on a commercial in the near future, but my attention was lost almost immediately. I guess I’m not in touch with the suffering of the world the way I probably should be, but hey – I voted for Obama…

Making sure he has more than one club hit on board, Kravitz brings in reinforcements yet again for “Sunflower” in the form of rising rap artist Drake. I never really considered Lenny a rap/r&b guy, so again this is left of the mark for me, but it has enough whistle “beep-beeps” and cowbell hits to get the boongie moving, which will please the dance crowd.

“Dream” is a drumless ballad that showcases Kravitz’s ability to write great lyrics. It’s as poignant as it is precise, and the echoing strings and piano only add to the ambiance of what is easily the prettiest track on the album. It’s relaxing and ethereal, and puts another notch in the belt of things done well.

Closing out the album, “Push” gives us one last reminder of why we give Lenny the credit we do. The song seamlessly blends the sounds of The Beatles, The Black Crowes, and Smokey Robinson into a track of mid-tempo majesty. With everything going on throughout the record, it was an appropriate way to finish the deal by combining a few different sounds into one that defines Kravitz to a tee.

As a whole, I fell like we got everything Lenny Kravitz had to offer here, and he delivered with skill and personality throughout. For me, it was a new height to a career that has seen its ups and downs over time, but Lenny already knew that, I think.

“I think it’s the best work I’ve done to date,” he says. “It’s a great balance of where I’ve been, where I am and where I am going.”

And, despite a couple of hiccups along the way, we agree – whole-heartedly. Welcome back, brother…

8.5/10

Tracklist:
01 – Black And White America
02 – Come On Get It
03 – In The Black
04 – Liquid Jesus
05 – Rock Star City Life
06 – Boongie Drop (Feat. Jay Z and DJ Military)
07 – Stand
08 – Superlove
09 – Everything
10 – I Can’t Be Without You
11 – Looking Back On Love
12 – Life Ain’t Ever Been Better Than It Is Now
13 – The Faith Of A Child
14 – Sunflower (Feat. Drake)
15 – Dream
16 – Push

But: Amazon

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