The Negro Problem: Joys & Concerns (1999)


The kids call it “Afro-Baroque”.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: In 1969 soul singer and organ player Billy Preston performed with The Beatles during their “Let It Be” sessions. Had they decided to compose songs together they might have sounded like The Negro Problem. Los Angeles-based Mark “Stew” Stewart has spent the last decade crafting disarmingly clever pop songs that make The Negro Problem sound like a lost band from the 1960s, the 1980s and at times, the 1930s.

Using irony the way Public Enemy uses a sampler, Stew bends your ear and his point of view into a pretzel of detachment and empathy. “Repulsion” celebrates the hangover of groupie love, and dares us to “call in late for work on Monday”. The shallow meets the surreal in two versions of “Comikbuchland”, one stately and grand, the other fizzy like a handful of Pop Rocks.

These songs are fun to sing with – I dare you not to croon along to the “doo-doo doo-doo” cabaret chorus of “Heads”, or the “ba-ba-baa” that begins mechanical surrealism of “Peter Jennings”. Instrumentally swarming with organs, flutes and mellotrons, each song is as catchy as a Broadway tune, but deviously darker and generally more enigmatic.

Their goofier side is brazenly evident in “Ken” a first-person monologue about Barbie’s boyfriend, where he admits the rumors are true:

My name is Ken
And I like men
But the people at Mattel
The home that I call hell
are somewhat bothered by my queer proclivities
It’s safe to say that they are really pissed at me

They always stick me
with Barbie
But I want them to know
I prefer GI Joe
But any able bodied man-doll will surely do
Just someone to love, since I am not set up to screw

Some bands’ music are designed for dancing, or drinking, or moping. The Negro Problem’s music would be good with fried ice cream, another unbelievably rare, sweet and crunchy delicacy.

THE FALLOUT: Fantastic critical acclaim but little sales. Stew started his solo career at this point (with collaborator Heidi Rosewald) and all but tabled The Negro Problem.

Joys & Concerns is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

A joyful odyssey into frequently odd human failings, Joys & Concerns floats upon its own bubble of pop.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Miles Davis gets so funky his label refuses to release his album for 25 years.


Hi there, one of my thousands of readers. After eighteen straight weeks of bringing you the finest in unsung Black departure albums I’m taking the week off. Feel free to peruse the previous entries at your leisure. The most popular review so far has been Q-Tip’s Kamaal the Abstract perhaps because it contains audio files to his unreleased album. What do you think? A brilliant masterwork or a cry for help?

See you next Wednesday.

Stevie Wonder: Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants (1979)


Twenty-five years later and his career still hasn’t bounced back.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: It’s 1979 and my mom is amped. We’ve just come home from the record store where we picked up Stevie Wonder’s first album in three years! Mom had practically worn the grooves off his last album, the double-length Songs in the Key of Life, and this one is a double record too! It’s gonna be great!

Then Mom puts the needle on the first song. She planned to sing along with Stevie but she is freaking out over the numerous instrumentals (starting with the synthetically orchestral “Earth’s Creation”) and songs in foreign languages (Japanese in the kids-and-koto-led “Ai No, Sono”, and Bambara in the savannah rhythms of “Kesse Ye Lolo De Ye”). She wanted to get down with some high-energy funk but instead she’s hearing mid-tempo ballads (the gorgeous “Black Orchid”) and slow hymns (like the funereal organs of “Ecclesiastes”).

Mom screws up her face at the record player as if it had defecated on the carpet. She furiously examines the record sleeve for some explanation of this madness, as if some random backup singer’s name would somehow justify this thing she had just purchased, at double record price no less.

“It’s a soundtrack to a plant documentary”, she snarls, as if that clarifies everything. “Why? Why would he do this?” Meaning, why would he do this to us, all the Black people who have supported him throughout his entire career, why would he blindside us with an un-funky, un-political, un-lyrical and un-cheap score to an un-movie?

The simple answer is, because the filmmakers asked him and he said “yes.” The real answer is devastatingly more complex.

America grew up with Stevie Wonder. We listened to him sing his little heart out as a young boy on Motown. We watched him take control of his career and turn synthesizers into seductive funk instruments. We heard him mature into the one of the best living songwriters, somehow selling millions of records and having dozens of hit songs while maintaining complete respect from other artists, musicians and critics.

But after a seventeen-year career of doing the same sort of music over and over, an original score offered him a chance to expand his talents into a completely new realm of composition. Based on the book by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, the documentary The Secret Life of Plants posits the thought that plants can actually feel emotions and are more sentient than anyone had ever considered. At a time in history where no one thought that a blind Black man had any more to offer the world than basket-making, I see how Stevie might have jumped at this opportunity.

Alas, the modes and tones that make up a great score are usually not the ones that make up a toe-tapping pop album. There are some classic Wonder moments on the album, namely the live band throwdown of “A Seed’s A Star” and the liquid vocoder disco of “Race Babbling”, but it’s mainly a collection of intriguing and expansive background music.

Had it been promoted as the score it truly was, the stage would have been set for a proper audience response. But it was set up as the next release from the man whose last three albums won Album of the Year Grammys, back-to-back-to-back, and the world expected something…, well at least something with a lot more words in it.

THE FALLOUT: Dead on arrival. The critical and commercial backlash was so intense I bet he wished he was deaf too. The up-with-romance single “Send One Your Love” was a minor hit but that was it. Even the film got caught in the horror, barely screening at all, ever.

Motown begged him to record a back-to-basics album lickety-split and he returned the next year with the successful Hotter Than July. The reggae of “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” probably saved his career, and yet, it killed his artistry. From 1980 on, Stevie Wonder released far fewer albums and all but gave up taking musical chances. The last twenty-five years of Stevie Wonder has been an abrupt shift from new sounds and naked expressiveness into flabby, overwrought sugar treats, and it all ended with this album.

Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants is available at Amazon and you can listen to some tracks below:

Expensive and unique, progressive and forgotten, Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants deserves a rebirth. I mean really, it’s WAY better than In Square Circle, and some of you actually bought that one. Ah well.

NEXT WEEK: Los Angeles has a Problem with Negroes.

Chocolate Genius: Godmusic (2001)


Alter-ego tripping.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: All over the world, for as long as human have performed, masks have been used to shelter identities while speaking truths, no matter how base those truths may be. New York musician Marc Anthony Thompson released two pop-soul albums under his own name in the 1980s but unleashed his sacred and profane persona Chocolate Genius in the late ‘90s. Witty and urbane, naïve and spastic his second album Godmusic demands your respect without requiring your approval.

His burnished, hushed baritone draws you in like a confessional then traps you there like a fly in a web, each song slowly progressing as if gravity is its enemy. On first listen the tunes seem ordinary, familiar, but each playback reveals additional layers.

The hymnlike moods are caressed into creation, from the mournful barbershop quartet of “Infidel Blues” or the ambient piano accents of the womb-like “Love”:

Love, love, love/ Poets talk
Love, love, love/ They don’t know
Love, love, love/ Stupid motherfuckers

Lyrically searching for happiness in a bleak world, he evokes a new dawn rising in the shimmering “Bossman Piss (In My Lemonade)” and literally creates God music with the ringing and squealing “To Serve You”.

“Planet Rock” is not a cover of the Afrika Bambaataa classic but a wheezy and cheesy eulogy to a lost friend, its synthetic candy-ass tones as cheap as the drugs she took:

I know a girl from planet rock
who swears that she can stop?
I heard her scream without a sound
burn her father’s house to the ground
I told myself I wouldn’t waste a song
Because she’s gone.

This may the only album I’ve heard that tries to be as wry as possible.

THE FALLOUT: Unclassifiable, unexplainable and essentially unsellable, Godmusic attracted a fistful of great reviews and a thimbleful of sales. In a typical story for this site, Chocolate Genius recorded his next album for another label.

Godmusic is out of print but used copies can be found at Amazon, and you can hear tracks right here:

Starting with out-of-sync warbling and ending with a nod to Truman Capote, Godmusic is refreshingly intelligent, humorous and oddball.

NEXT WEEK: Stevie Wonder scores a little plant documentary and, oh it backfires.