Cornel West, M.I.A., Nick Lowe, Soulive
Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations
Cornel West, the Princeton University professor and historian celebrated for books such as Race Matters, is an unlikely candidate to make a rap and R&B album. But Never Forget is actually his second disc. The first, 2002's Sketches of My Culture, relied on his spoken-word vignettes; this one gathers together earnest contributions from Jill Scott, Talib Kweli, Andre 3000, Killer Mike and many others. The stars offer their most political- and social-minded tracks – Prince's casually funky "Dear Mr. Man" is a highlight. Awkwardly, Dr. West drops in the middle of each to give some sort of speech, as if he were the ivory-tower version of Funkmaster Flex. Never Forget often sounds like an audio book instead of a collection of songs. For all its didacticism, however, Never Forget can potentially serve as a bridge for older generations who underestimate the power of modern urban music. 3 stars
It's a shame this album didn't come out two months earlier. It would've been the party record of the summer. Kala has all the neon-funk energy of its predecessor, 2005's Arular, with an added kick. M.I.A. and co-producer Switch have thickened the machine-gun 808 beats of Arular with fuzzed-out synths, Afro-beat samples and animal screeches. Opener "Bamboo Banga" bridges the gap between Arular and M.I.A.'s new, more diverse sound. Still in revolutionary mode, she shouts the cryptic chant, "I'm knockin' on the door of your Hummer, Hummer," like an insurgent protesting a foreign presence. The most striking quality of Kala is its weird factor. "Jimmy" sounds like the love child of Françoise Hardy and a Daft Punk robot. On the slow-burner "20 Dollar," M.I.A. combines the "Blue Monday" bassline with the chorus of "Where Is My Mind?" while satirizing the influence of Western pop culture in Africa ("Price of livin' in a shanty town is high/but we still like T.I."). If more hip-hop artists took Kala-like chances, the world would be a better place. 5 stars
To loosely paraphrase his friend and colleague Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe has always been a man out of time. As the late '70s morphed into the new-wave '80s, Lowe was in the thick of it – an in-demand raconteur, creating shimmering pop albums that echoed moments of music history out of vogue even then. Every Lowe record or production is different, but marked with the pure pop signature of a genius on the same level with Phil Spector. Now, as he's looking soberly at his late 50s, his feral frolicking well behind him, he's made one of the best albums of his decade-plus mellow period. But this time out, he revels in his maturity without sounding old, his middle-aged voice adding an authoritative resonance to the gently rocking, cleverly constructed collection of time-tested testimonies and soulful musings. A mesmerizing collection of songs for adults. 5 stars
Since the limber grooves of Stax's one-time house band Booker T. and the MGs have influenced much of Soulive's own supple jazz/R&B/funk, the act seemed custom-made for the legendary label's high-profile revival/reactivation. But the once instrumentally driven trio, which invited an occasional guest vocalist to assist, now adds a full-time singer to the lineup. The results are mixed, due to rather weak material bolstered somewhat by the ex-reggae-based Toussaint's dusky voice. The trio excels at grooves and licks rather than melodies, yet it seems handcuffed on most of this compact, jam-free material. There's nothing wrong with reinvention, and Soulive sure has the chops, but the results here often feel as stiff as a teenager wearing his first tuxedo to the prom. 2 stars
Soulive performs at 8 p.m. Thurs., Aug. 23, at the Roxy. $20.