Lenny Kravitz Gets “Black and White” And Graded All Over

Posted: August 29, 2011 by RA in Music
Tags: , , ,

Lenny Kravitz - Black and White America

That’s the sound of a man satisfied.

Since watching the teaser on YouTube, which showed 90 seconds of Lenny Kravitz (with sole collaborator Craig Ross) build the bass-and-synth masterwork “Superlove”, I knew I had to hear the full song. Slightly cheesy lyrics aside, it’s well worth the wait. And now, having finally sated that six-month hunger, we can finally assess Black and White America as a complete album.

Lenny Kravitz isn’t an album artist. Then again, he isn’t much of a singles artist either. And if the critics are to be believed, he isn’t Rock, and he’s not quite Soul. Born biracial into the strictly segregated American record industry, where Black equals Soul/R&B and White for some reason equals Rock n’ Roll, he’s been forced to exist in a strange nether region between the two worlds. Yes, he’s kinda like Saffronia that way

It’s a fate he’s acknowledged for years, with aplomb, wit, and occasional frustration. So the album title comes as little surprise. He does address race on the title track, whose killer melody and instrumentation are only slightly dampened by its armchair racial philosophy, phrased so inanely it’s easy to forget believe Kravitz lived any of this first-hand. But for the most part, this album is about what all Kravitz albums are about — love, women, and Oprah-esque platitudes about being our best selves.

You see, there are a few key elements to be expected of any Lenny Kravitz album. A formula Black and White America does little to stray from. So with that in mind, let’s look at it through the prism of the Lenny catalog.

Don’t worry, kids. I’m grading on a curve.

The Great Big Fucking Huge Guitar Number

The Great Big Fucking Huge Guitar Number
On every Lenny album, there’s that one cut — almost always a single, almost always in the first quarter of the album — that reminds the listener of Kravitz’s Rock n’ Roll creds, should they ever be in question. Walk down the street with this on and you’ll feel like Superman. That is, of course, if Superman wore tight leather pants, feather-lined jackets, and… well, OG Superman did have the boots right.

The BWA edition of this Lenny staple is the hard-edged, sexy “Come On Get It”. Its peacocky-yet-menacing stomp has already made Kravitz a nice chunk of change, after being featured in everything from movie trailers to the 2011 NBA All-Star Game. While it will never live up to the gold-standard Lenny GBFHGN, “Are You Gonna Go My Way”, it acquits itself nicely, ending up somewhere in the middle of the pile.
Grade: C+    Weighted: C
Further Study: Are You Gonna Go My WayWhere Are We Runnin’?, Battlefield of Love, Love Revolution

The Ballad of Romeo BlueThe Ballad of Romeo Blue
Lenny Kravitz has always been a hopeless hippie romantic, unafraid of emotion, unashamed of give-peace-a-chance optimism. This means he loves himself a good ballad. The problem is he doesn’t often make a good ballad. Downtempos ranging from generic to downright shlocky make up half of the average Lenny album (the big exception being 5, his tightest, most listenable album to date). However, when it’s good, it’s downright epic. And the Law of Averages is reason enough for him to keep trying, in the hope that he will one day create another “Again”.

The ballad selection on BWA is mercifully short, and the worst offender is undeniably Dream, an abomination with lines like “You can take away my freedom / but my spirit will run free”, and the chorus: “It all starts with a dream / the dawn of a new day.” It’s the sort of piano-driven dreck that belongs in the trailer of a mid-’90s movie about a brave young boy overcoming adversity with the help of a Very Special Friend™.
Grade: D-    Weighted: C
Further Study: AgainHeaven HelpCalling All AngelsStillness of HeartStand By My WomanI’ll Be Waiting

The Two-Ton FeatherThe Two-Ton Feather
Half of this song’s tension is created simply by walking the razor-thin line of non-commitment to loud or quiet. Powerful in its potential, this cut is the aural equivalent of Kappa-stepping up a storm on a hardwood floor… in bunny slippers. The fact that its dangerous flirtation with volume remains unconsummated leaves the listener with a discomfiting feeling of untapped potential — like a sneeze that never quite comes.

On “Liquid Jesus”, Kravitz’s falsetto floats above a bass-led arrangement, muffled to sound like it’s coming from your downstairs neighbor. It’s an effect that makes a living room chillout track out of a parallel-universe arena Rock anthem.
Grade: B+    Weighted: C
Further Study: Believe In MeIf You Can’t Say No, Breathe (Eric Roberson Remix), More Than Anything In This World

The Appeal to CoolThe Appeal to Cool
As someone constantly forced to endure hamfisted comparisons to Jimi Hendrix, Kravitz came to be viewed as something of a walking retro pastiche. Thus, his first dabblings with a more digital sound were mocked as attempts at youth-appeal by an out-of-touch old man. (Kravitz was 34 at the time.) Since then, he’s reinvented himself as a cat who, in any decade, is recognized as cool. Indisputably cool. Cooler than the cucumbers in Billie-Dee Williams’ refrigerator.

Still, you can’t help but greet “Boongie Drop” with a raised eyebrow. It’s a girls-in-the-club cut that feels tired when performed by your average Pop-Rap artist, and downright bizarre coming from Kravitz, who invites frequent collaborator Jay-Z onto the track, effectively upping its old-man-in-the-club ante. But by the end of Jay’s verse, you’ll find yourself warming to the song. It still isn’t an example of great songwriting — it isn’t even silly, insanely catchy earcrack. But Kravitz’s aforementioned cool and Jay’s charisma somehow manage to save the song from its own silliness.
Grade: C-    Weighted: D

And then there’s “Sunflower”, on which Kravitz invites rapper Drake to bond over their love of horticulture a good woman. Drake is a great choice for a collaborator — both are often mocked for being far more emotionally expressive than their contemporaries. But instead of the simpfest their detractors would have you expect, you get Lenny at his most absolutely modern — with producer Swizz Beatz continuing his streak of creating brilliant work that complements (and even advances) the catalogs of artists not named Swizz Beatz. Kravitz adopts a Jamiroquai-as-sung-by-Seal cadence on the spacey, wide-open soundscape, which inexplicably rests on a near-identical drum pattern to his previous album’s “Will You Marry Me”.
Grade: A    Weighted: A+
Further Study: Black Velveteen, Pay To Play

The Sunny Guitar NumberThe Sunny Guitar Number
Unlike its older sibling — sometimes cocky, sometimes angry — this cut is the inexplicably happy person you can’t help but like (despite your recurring “Care Bears Come Alive” nightmares that make sleep an impossible dream). Often the album’s most Pop-accessible offering, thanks to its simple but infectious leading guitar chord, the sunny Lenny track is a So-Cal summer day on wax.

Yes, the Sunny Guitar Number is, by definition, enjoyable regardless of objective analysis. Still, I’m declaring “Stand” a winner. Standard Kravitz affirmations are couched in an infectious, retro beach party number, with a stomp-clap that will make you ignore the fact that he just told you to “get up and say ‘Yes I can'”.
Grade: B-    Weighted: C+
Further Study: Dig InLadyIt Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over

The Funk WorkoutThe Funk Workout
Every so often, on the right Soul/Rock album, you’ll find the jam session where it’s just a man and his guitar… and the stickiest of grooves. Of course, on a Lenny album, it’s a man and his guitars — acoustic, bass, electric — as well as his piano, drums, and synthesizer.

On “Life Ain’t Ever Been Better Than It Is Now”, lyrics are naturally secondary to the groove — a stick-to-your-ribs drums/bass-guitar partnership that will make you wince like you just ate a whole lemon. This track will make you hope even more for the all-Funk album Kravitz has been teasing for the better part of the decade.
Grade: A-    Weighted: A
Further Study: Straight Gold Player, Come On And Love Me

Sure, Kravitz doesn’t reinvent the wheel on Black and White America, but its unexpected stylistic twists (the unfortunate “Boongie Drop” and the subtle nods to Thriller / Off The Wall-era Michael Jackson on “Sunflower” and “War”) cannot be ignored. And with its consistently strong musicianship (again, provided in its entirety by Kravitz and Ross) and an equally strong editing hand in the song-selection process, it makes for a compelling listen. Though it may lack an undeniable perennial like “Fly Away” or “I Belong To You”, Black and White America is arguably Kravitz’s most consistently enjoyable album since 5.

Plus, it has “Superlove”. That’s got to count for something.


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