The latest albums from Al Green, Erykah Badu, and the Roots have at least two things in common: They are good bets to make my 2008 best of lists and they are co-produced by Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson. The afro-rocking Roots drummer lays down furious fatback beats on their eighth, Rising Down (Def Jam), but the most eccentric member of the Philly ensemble is proving he's as great a force behind the boards as the drum kit.
Not that it’s always been easy. In a Spin interview, ?uestlove says Al Green cussed him out during their recording session for Lay It Down (Blue Note), shouting, “Why are there motherfuckin’ computers everywhere? I’m gonna sing it the way I wanna sing it, goddamn it!”
That Grandpa Simpson luddism is partly what makes Green’s vocals so divine. But ?uestlove, with help from the Dap-Kings Horns and guest spots from John Legend, Corrine Bailey Rae, and the criminally underrated Anthony Hamilton, adds just enough of a modern touch to keep things fresh. The LP, due May 27, is miles ahead of Green’s two previous Blue Note releases this decade and – dare I say it – comes awfully close to rivaling his classic 1970s Hi material.
Green isn’t the first technophobe ?uestlove has collaborated with. He bought Badu her first computer in 2004 and the self-proclaimed “analog girl in a digital world” used it to help create the most daring album of 2008 thus far, New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) (Motown).
The Dallas native eschews radio hits for sprawling jams where fragments of Miles Davis, Parliament, Prince, and Outkast are splattered across the track like a Jackson Pollock painting. Alternating between paranoia and serene calm, Badu and ?uestlove create moods as much as songs. “The Healer” begins with a hypnotic chant incorporating the names of the world’s major deities before boldly proclaiming, “Hip-hop is bigger than religion.” Meditate to that.
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