Robert Glasper: a musical genius

Image credit: Don Q. Hannah

“Thank God we still have musicians and thinkers whose obsession with excellence and whose hunger for greatness remind us that we should all be unsatisfied with mimicking the popular rather than minding the fertile veins of creativity that God placed deep inside each of us.”

Pretty profound statement by Patrick Stump on the song I Stand Alone on Robert Glasper’s album, Black Radio 2.

More than a deep statement, the words sum up and reflect the artist and incredible talent that he is.

I bless the day I first listened to his magical fingers rhythmically slide atop and ricochet against the piano, producing utterly beautiful Jazz sounds which, on some songs, thanks to his creativity and his quest to push the envelope, are infused with rap verses from Snoop Dogg and Lupé Fiasco.

My earliest introduction to Robert’s music was through a song titled All Matter a friend had me listen to. Coincidentally, it’s the same time I discovered Neo Soul singer extraordinaire, Bilal (Oliver). By my friend’s recommendation still, I then listened and fell in musical love with the gem, Letter to Hermione — which has Bilal lending vocals on it, too. At this point, my allegiance to Glasper’s work was sealed!

Bilal chatting to Robert
Bilal chatting to Robert

Thanks to Kim Yvette Glasper; Robert’s earliest musical influence was his mother, who sang jazz and blues professionally. She would take him with her to club dates rather than leave her son with babysitters. She was the music director at the East Wind Baptist Church, where Glasper first performed for an audience.

“I think beauty is overrated, cos that’s something anyone can be…”, goes Musiq Soulchild on Ah Yeah. Because of the talent it boasts, the song had me at hello — with Chrisette Michele also lending sensual vocals atop the masterfully played piano.

Produced under the illustrious Jazz record label, Blue Note Records, the Robert Glasper Experiment. Black Radio 1 was quite a revelation to me, not to mention an expansion of my musical horizons. If I’m honest, the experiment came out impeccable, as it remains one of the few albums with which I can emotionally break free and Lift Off with Shafiq Husayn right to the twelfth jam, Smells Like Teen Spirit, with the passionate Stokley Williams.

Over and above being obviously talented, Robert Glasper is an authentic soul. Having watched countless hours of his live performances and paying attention to how he carries himself, he does not try too hard. He nestles and finds comfort in his own presence and around his piano, often laughing and making fun of his band mates between songs.

This ability to chill while performing at the highest level possible is what allows world-class musicians, and even athletes to exist (think football maestro, Zenedine Zidane, calmly taking a penalty during the 2006 World Cup final for France against Italy). This is the reason his music feels effortless and comes off so beautifully.

In today’s noisy and fast-paced world, I believe authenticity and emotion is one of our essential tools in the quest to create amazing work and connect with our audiences.

What also makes Glasper’s Experiment an amazing project are the names he brought together to work alongside him to make it. Having a list comprising of Lalah Hathaway, Erykah Badu, Ledisi, Lupé Fiasco, Musiq Soulchild, Chrisette Michele and later (for Black Radio 2): Common, Brandy, Jill Scott, Anthony Hamilton, Marsha Ambrosius, to name a few. He seems to be the guy great artists want to work with.

Writing about which, it was quite resourceful of Robert to use his Twitter profile to help him land the big name artists on his project. In an interview about his first album’s success, he mentions how he galvanized the support of music lovers (particularly those who believe in his talents and abilities) to nudge Lalah Hathaway — to mention but one — to feature on his album. This snow balled into having other household names coming on. He concedes not knowing many of the musicians he has worked with so far, not initially anyway. Social media once again proved to be an effective tool in this case.

I am all for authenticity. And as such, I love artists who have that evasive nuance and cool in their manner, which translates into throngs of people connecting with and supporting their work. The truth and honesty weaved into his work allows Robert Glasper that very edge, the reason I never skip even a single song on both his albums I have.

Greats: Glasper and Common

As this article’s introduction suggests, Robert prides himself with pushing the proverbial envelope to create fresh work which leaps from the speaker to your heart as a listener. His hunger to beat the curve and achieve more; to achieve a certain variety — uniqueness is well noted and comes across in every piece of work on the first Black Radio installation. Which, needless to write, overlaps into the second one, and has turned me into a fan and an advocate of his music.

On the first offering of the Black Radio concept, he challenged what had become the status quo of Jazz music. I mean, it was largely seen as the form of music artists ought not to tamper with — as in, ‘you dare not make it funky’. In an interview I once watched, Robert protested, “Jazz has been the same since inception, and what’s more, it does not fuse with other forms of music and artists. And this makes it stagnant.” This stance didn’t end up as words and theory to be debated to no end, as he featured Hip Hop legend and impresario, Snoop Dogg, in one of his songs. Talk about walking the talk. Well, in this instance, more of, producing the walk in sweet melodies infused with sharp rap verses.

Writing of Hip Hop, I remember listening to Kendrick Lamar’s offering, To Pimp a Butterfly, and trying to evaluate the album and then decide if I want to keep listening to it or not. I must admit, it was new ! It wasn’t an album I listened to and fell in love with immediately. It took time.
One evening while I lay on my bed, the music player shuffled songs and gave me Complexion, featuring Rhapsody and Lalah Hathaway. Lo and behold, right before Rhapsody spits her mind over the beat, I hear elements similar to Robert Glasper’s. Those strokes on the piano. And then Lalah’s voice started humming under Rhapsody’s, I squealed with joy under my blankets.

After that, I discovered songs featuring Bilal on the album, and then listened to To Pimp a Butterfly with renewed vigour.

Robert Glasper’s groundbreaking work is ensuring that we are able to identify the importance of blazing a unique path to self expression. He has pioneered a distinctly individual and authentic voice for himself, instead of succumbing to mind-numbing sameness and regurgitating stale ideas.

Image Credit: Don Q. Hannah

In conclusion, a thought inspired by Patrick Stump; they are fitting words which speak to the type of work produced and espoused by Robert Glasper. Which I wish you’ll take on and apply in your own life and the work you put out to the world:

Each new installation of anything you create should bear the imprint of your unquenchable thirst to say something that is your own, in your own way, in your own voice, as best you can. The trends of the times be damned!