Baroque Pop, Gospel-Flavored Roots Music and Non-Gangsta Gangsta Rap

Lightspeed Champion

Life Is Sweet! Nice to Meet You (Domino)

Lightspeed Champion, born Devonte Hynes in Houston, Texas, before his family moved to Essex, England, when he was 2, is on heavy rotation on my iPod these days. His album, Life Is Sweet! Nice to Meet You — a recent discovery despite the fact that it came out in February — is a follow-up to his 2008 critically acclaimed debut, Falling Off the Lavender Bridge. Fine, y'all know where to send my late pass.


That said, what I like about Life Is Sweet is its literate mélange of pop, rock and classical touches. Hynes announces his songwriting ability immediately with the first track when he begins "Dead Head Blues" with this announcement: "Nothing seemed to be happening but a shift from your world." And it's a line that doesn't portend well: He goes on to sing affectingly about his realization that the woman he pined for has fallen in love with someone else.

Hynes mixes the baroque with the operatic on "The Big Guns of Highsmith," where the piano line highsteps throughout the song. He adds a Queen-like flourish when he sings, "Hurts to be the one who's always feeling sad," and a male chorus retorts, "Oh, just stop complaining!"

What's poignant about this album is the extent to which Hynes seems riddled with restlessness and insecurity. It's an album full of longing for connection, while at the same time, Hynes seems to have his eye on the next destination. He's the nerdy black guy who, more often than not, says the wrong thing to the girl. Or, worse, he leaves but then wants to be taken back. No one can have it both ways, but that doesn't seem to stop Hynes from trying.

What Hynes pulls off is exuberance rather than the maudlin. He shows himself to be a fine songwriter and song craftsman. His ability hasn't gone unnoticed. He's had a song on the soundtrack for the film MacGruber and is now in the studio with Solange Knowles. If she's ever to step out of the voluptuous shadow of her sister, the 24-year-old Lightspeed Champion just might be the one to show her the way.


Lizz Wright

Fellowship (Verve Forecast)

It's interesting to hear Lizz Wright start her new album with a cover of Meshell Ndegeocello's "Fellowship." Listen closely, and you hear similar qualities in both women's voices. And where Ndegeocello shaped her plea for tolerance over a reggae beat, Wright plays it straight with rootsy simplicity, the song's bass and drums pulsing in a head-nod-inducing lockstep.


Folks will want to call Fellowship, which was released on Sept. 27, a gospel album, but in some ways that misses the point. On one hand, this album is Wright's invitation to experience the joy of American roots music as one might find it at a roadside juke joint. But in addition to her cover of Ndegeocello's song, Wright's interpretations of songs by Bernice Johnson Reagon (the Sweet Honey in the Rock vet guests on this CD as well), Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Angelique Kidjo, to name a few, give this album a wide-ranging appeal. It's a powerful statement about the things we have in common and, in that regard, is a powerful balm for these divisive times. Wright wouldn't be out of place performing at either a country music event or on a bill with, for example, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, another modern roots band. 

My favorite track? The eight-minute "Gospel Medley." Specifically, around the 3:49 mark, she launches into "Up Above My Head" and then into "Hold On Just a Little While Longer." The combination of Wright and Johnson Reagon's voices over Kenny Banks' piano leaves me tingling. I could be done with the album at that point. It's that good.



Mixed Race (Domino)

Mixed Race, Tricky's eighth album, is a dark, tense romp, and at times cinematic. Music boxes. Rounds being chambered. Atmospheric synth fills. According to Tricky (born Adrian Thaws), Mixed Race — which has already been released in the U.K. and will be available in the States on Oct. 5 — is the closest the British rapper-producer is going to get to "gangsta album" because, as he said, he never lived that life. In fact, one of the better tracks on the album, "Ghetto Stars," paints a cautionary tale of that life, told from the standpoint of a woman visiting her man behind bars: "Ghetto Stars don't go far, ghetto traps, locked behind bars," sings Frankey Riley on the chorus. And in "Early Bird," Tricky raps about his youth and the various criminal activities he witnessed but never had the stomach to participate in. It makes sense; Tricky noted that he's had family who lived the illegal life. Three were murdered — two by gunshots, and one by the knife.


"Murder Weapon," the album's first single, reworks Echo Minott's early '90s hit. It keeps up in terms of drive but misses the bounce of the original. "UK Jamaican" is a powerful club banger featuring Terry Lynn's patois.

Tricky is mostly content to stay behind the boards, leaving the vocal duties to Riley, Lynn and his brother Marlon.


It doesn't find him back at the heights he achieved with his genre-defining debut, Maxinquaye, but it is a solid album. If you're getting back to Tricky after any kind of hiatus, this is a good album with which to start.

Rob Fields writes about black rock and black alternative music and culture on his blog,

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