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Aloe Blacc - Shine Through

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Artist: Aloe Blacc

Album: Shine Through

Label: Stones Throw

Review date: Oct. 25, 2006

Aloe Blacc, an R&B singer from Southern California, has received a fair amount of coverage of late, with favorable reviews on NPR and in Urb, and flattering comparisons to established acts like Mos Def and John Legend. Shine Through, his anticipated debut album, marks the entry of a singer who, unquestionably, has talent, but, as of now, lacks sophistication and artistic maturity.

Without a doubt, Aloe Blacc can sing. He has a fine tenor and decent range. But to be a successful R&B act, you need to carry more than a tune. There are scores of singers who, if given the right material, could move a roomful of listeners to tears. For sure, the great soul singers all had unique voices, rich, complex and beyond simply sounding pretty. But they also added something else, a garnish or flare that distinguished them from the average. It is difficult to summarize this quality as a categorical description – the great R&B acts were exceptional, rather than examples of the rule – but, whatever one chooses to dub this individual feature, the classic soul singers had it. Aloe Blacc does not, yet.

A popular belief that many seem to accept, albeit grudgingly, holds that R&B connotes unadulterated feeling in a way that other styles simply cannot. Yet, for a genre awash in emotional singing, R&B lyrics tend not to be especially poetic; underwhelming, actually. R&B’s resonance stems not from the words themselves, bu t from the way in which a performer transforms the lyrical schmaltz of pop into baroque masterworks. Of course, the notion that R&B songwriters do not write songs that are meritorious on their face is an overinclusive generalization – Bob Dylan did not call Smokey Robinson the greatest living poet in America for nothing. But Aloe Blacc does little to disprove this observation about R&B songwriting. His songs tend towards the cliché: most of Shine Through documents Aloe Blacc assuming the role of the callous player or the unrequited lover, two stereotypes central to most of R&B’s liturgy, without any novel explication about what it is or what it means to be a lover today. We are still left with the bluntness of Prince but, thankfully, nothing approximating R. Kelly’s “key in ignition” grade-school scuttlebutt.

Given the conventions of R&B, noting that Aloe Blacc may not be a great lyricist is a relatively neutral observation. If anything, he is consistent with R&B’s general character. The lack of lyrical depth on Shine Through is worth pointing out, however, because of how Aloe Blacc chooses to begin the record. “Whole World” is a sung list of Blacc’s soul predecessors – Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, and the other troubadours filling out the pantheon – to provide, I assume, a context in which one is supposed to gauge his album. The subsequent song is a rendition of Sam Cooke’s “Long Time Coming.” This two-piece introduction is a bold but careless move. While name-checking a dozen luminaries suggests Aloe Blacc has confidence to spare, it also raises expectations that, frankly, are impossible to meet. This impossibility is immediately apparent upon hearing Aloe Blacc’s take on Cooke. “Long Time Coming” was the latter’s most overtly political song, a sermon whose verses captured the moral bravery of the Civil Rights Movement more succinctly than any other popular work of the mid-'60s. In Blacc’s arrangement, however, the song’s original narrative is broken and, in its place, he presents a pastiche of Cooke’s Biblical allusions bridged by producer’s Oh No’s firm but misplaced bass. Ultimately, “Long Time Coming” is not a song to be heard, but is reduced to background material fit for a Manhattan club – shiny, smokeless and immaculately lined with fluorescent-tinted bars. It is a sadly depoliticized version. At least Aloe Blacc sings the song earnestly, providing a saving grace for a cover that, in another’s hands, would have bordered on a travesty.

Near Shine Through’s end, “One Inna,” a song produced by Madlib, provides the album’s most worthwhile moment; unfortunately for Aloe Blacc, not for the right reasons. Madlib provides a standard hip hop groove with a clearly pronounced bass line, the stuff that any working producer should be able to cook up in a day’s work. The twist – and, with Madlib, a twist ought to always be expected – comes in the recurring sample, a deep baritone appropriated from what sounds like a dated parlor record, crooning, “you’re one in a million.” Atop this, Aloe Blacc vamps about his unencumbered love. Near the song’s completion, as Aloe Blacc moans his seven-digit phone number – so, as he says, you, his lover, can call him on his private line – Madlib drops the “one in a million” sample. I take it that, on a first listen, the line is supposed to support the singularity of Blacc’s love. But the sample, clearly out-of-place in its historical precedence of the soul era to which Aloe Blacc aspires, sounds increasingly cartoonish and, by song’s end, does little to bolster Blacc’s ode. Rather, Madlib’s sample makes Blacc’s effort, conventional on first listen, seem a bit ridiculous: Who is this guy claiming his individual love for his anonymous lady on a recording that, in its ordinary artistic style and readily-consumable form, could not be any more homogenized and reproducible? And who, exactly, is this joke being played on?

I would love to think that Blacc himself was the auteur behind this experiment in R&B as camp. The rest of Shine Through is too inconsistent, however, to extend that gratuity.

By Ben Yaster

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