Hear This: Les Nubians, Ambrose Akinmusire, Pharoahe Monch


When the Heart Emerges Glistening by Ambrose Akinmusire 

Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire (ah-kin-MOO-sir-re) has just released When the Heart Emerges Glistening, his first album for major jazz label Blue Note Records. The Oakland, Calif., native was the subject of a major profile in last Sunday's New York Times. Heart is a shifty and fascinating album for its alternations between mellow and intense feelings. Co-produced by Akinmusire and prominent pianist Jason Moran, the album features Walter Smith III on tenor sax, Gerald Clayton on piano, Harish Raghavan on bass and Justin Brown on drums.


Akinmusire's influences are clearly quite diverse, and while embracing the history of jazz, he employs a variety of rhythms and styles, from Spanish (or possibly Arab) to African. On two interludes that are tributes to his mother, I think I hear (and I'm no musicologist) intervals that remind me of medieval European music but add up to an effect of a sort of timeless dignity.

His themes are just as diverse. "The Walls of Lechuguilla" refers to a cave system in New Mexico and seems to me to be a good musical reflection of entering and exploring a cave. An up-tempo number that allows the musicians to stretch out a bit, it is perhaps is my favorite tune on the album.

"My Name Is Oscar" is a tribute to Oscar Grant, a black man killed by police in Oakland on New Year's Eve in 2009. It includes Akinmusire speaking in a formal, almost 1960s sci-fi style. The words are perhaps supposed to feel distant and disembodied over Brown's alternately angry and exasperated drums. "We are the same … my name is Oscar … I am Grant. My name is Oscar. I, Grant. My name is Oscar Grant." It is carefully put together and seems a fitting tribute.

Some of Akinmusire's numbers feel a little heavy-handed. "Confessions to My Unborn Daughter" and "Tear Stained Suicide Manifesto" sound how you'd expect them to sound. I'd want a tune like "Tear Stained Suicide Manifesto" to actually be some sort of zany circus music — surprise, listener! — but that's just me.

Akinmusire also includes a fantastic take on the old jazz standard "What's New?" This feels inspired, both for the trumpet and piano, and also sounds fresh. I hope that this album will be the first of many for Akinmusire on Blue Note and that future albums will include more standards, for which he seems to have a feeling and a knack.

W.A.R. (We Are Renegades) by Pharoahe Monch

The great Pharoahe Monch, one of the smartest, most diverse and consistent rappers of all time, is back with an exciting new album. Originally a member of the underrated group Organized Konfusion in the early 1990s, he revisits themes important to him since then, from dystopias to his battle with asthma.


W.A.R. begins with an introduction by Idris Elba, playing a character in the Afghanistan of 2023, setting the tone for an album that is a bit apocalyptic but not necessarily dreary. In fact, it's rather uplifting, especially "Still Standing" (featuring Jill Scott), in which he delivers his most poignant reflections on asthma.

On "Let My People Go," which features a churchy organ sample, Monch adopts the persona of a reverend, to great effect. "The Hitman," meanwhile, is not the obligatory underground rapper's attack on the music industry but, rather, a more subtle and in some ways more devastating consideration of the business. (Many people don't know that Monch, for all his impeccable underground cred and lyrical depth, has ghostwritten for P. Diddy, giving him perhaps a wider perspective on the industry.)


The most lyrically intense and energetic track is "Assassins," featuring Jean Grae and Royce Da 5'9, in which the three play the only remaining assassins of an elite unit not captured by the "world government" of 2013 (and, by extension, the last hope of resistance), and each displays a personality on the track that makes you think, "Good for that alternate universe and bad for that world government."

My favorite track is probably "Black Hand Side," featuring the always thoughtful and lyrical Styles P (of LOX/D-Block fame), whose ruminations (and brief advice to Obama) pack a wallop. The beats on W.A.R. are hot without exception, diverse and sometimes quite unexpected. The album is a worthy addition to the vast and impressive oeuvre by the Queens, N.Y., native. It has certainly gone a long way toward helping this spring be a special one for new albums by old favorites.


Nü Revolution by Les Nubians

Just in time for spring-cleaning comes Les Nubians' new album, Nü Revolution. I cannot think of more pleasant or appropriate music to clean the house to on a Saturday morning in April or May. Les Nubians is an Afro-French duo (sisters) who made some waves in the U.S. in the late 1990s and have been making solid music ever since.


Their new album is quite relaxing. If I were making commercials for detergent with sheets blowing on clotheslines in a summer breeze, I'd use their songs. I mean that as the highest compliment.

Most of the lyrics are in French, with a few songs in very good, though slightly accented, English. My favorite track is the upbeat and highly infectious "Africa for the Future," sung in français et anglais. I can't imagine an American radio format in which it — or many of the songs on the album — would succeed, and that's a shame. They deserve a wide audience. "Africa for the Future" is probably the best tune. "Nü Revolution," in English, might have the best chance of getting attention.


"Femme Polyandre" contains the lyric "Je suis la femme polyandre." That's "polyandre," not "Pollyanna," though James Joyce could have had fun with that pun. Polyandry is an ancient form of marriage, practiced in many archaic societies, in which the woman has more than one husband. Yikes! I'm still fumbling with my French dictionary to figure those lyrics out. If you don't know what it means, it's still a pretty song.

On the track "Je M'En Occupe," the duo engage in some really beautiful rhythmic a cappella stylings, reminiscent of the Afro-Belgian group Zap Mama. Fans of Zap Mama will dig that number and probably the whole album. "Nü Soul Makossa," meanwhile, is a fine homage to the 1972 classic "Soul Makossa" by Manu Dibango. There is also a rap song with a pretty great beat: "Veuillez Veiller Sur Vos Rêves."


At the end, in English, the MC says, "Do not let your dreams fall asleep." He has a good flow (in French), and the song is in keeping with the feel of the rest of the album. Overall, the album is full of catchy, rhythmically exciting, mellow and soulful music.

Paul Devlin is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.