Kenna: New Sacred Cow (2003)


Eighties. We’re living in the eighties.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: In 2001 Limp Bizkit mastermind Fred Durst stopped making crap music just long enough to sign singer-songwriter Kenna to his label. The Ethiopian-born Virginia transplant then handcrafted his fizzy and fun debut album New Sacred Cow.

A red neon homage to new wave music it uniquely incorporates the soaring and slightly British vocals, big melodies and plastic squiggly tones of 80s modern rock while injecting a hip-hop flavor into the concrete-tough rhythm tracks. Imagine Duran Duran and Depeche Mode produced by Dr. Dre and you’re in the ballpark.

Kenna layers his lilting, desperate voice over the songs like a warm headscarf, giving you a deep immersion into his laments. His beautiful phrasing neatly knits the dirty bouncing regret of “Freetime”. The electro-gospel “Vexed And Glorious” features a syncopated busy signal anchored by a rippling snare and zooms like a quick drive away from the club.

The danceable joyfulness of his music is tempered by its extreme introspection. He’s concerned with losing his independence (“Siren”), his happiness (“I’m Gone”) and perhaps his sanity (“New Sacred Cow”). Even when he accepts love he nervously questions it in the manic depressive “Love/Hate Sensation”:

Give me a ride on a zephyr
And rocket away from here
Give me all your affection
And teach me how to feel

I got a love hate sensation
Coursing through my veins
I got a love hate sensation
Driving me insane

This is also an eerily accurate prediction of how his album would get to the public.

THE FALLOUT: A single was released in 2001 but his label refused to release the album, citing their inability to market a black new wave musician. After two years in limbo New Sacred Cow was finally issued on a different label, but positive press and a high-profile tour did not result in significant sales or a mark change in the original marketing conundrum.

Kenna’s promotional dilemma did inspire an interesting chapter in Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Not that marketing him would be easy, but as he didn’t appear in his first two music videos, and as the only picture of him in his own CD booklet is a one inch tall, black and white portrait of him hiding his face, it seems that someone has a problem with the race issue.

New Sacred Cow is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

New Sacred Cow is a refreshing sponge of synth-pop styles and self-examination, sunny and seductive, and singularly sensational. And kinda silly.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Seu Jorge swims out into open water.

Garland Jeffreys: Don’t Call Me Buckwheat (1991)


The Un-tragic Mulatto.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: Every black man I know has been hassled by a racist cop. And you know what? We have it easy. Imagine living in America before civil rights legislation, when “colored-only” water fountains were plentiful and legal. Now imagine growing up in the 1950s as the child of black, white and Puerto Rican ancestry.

That is the reality of Brooklyn singer-songwriter Garland Jeffreys, and two decades into his recording career he delivered a concept album about surviving racial intolerance, 1992’s vulnerable Don’t Call Me Buckwheat.

Remixing rock, reggae and R&B as rhythms from related recipes, he recants tales of his life and the role racism has rendered. As a boy the light-skinned blue-eyed Jeffreys occasionally passed for white (the flamenco-styled “Spanish Blood) when he wasn’t being stared at like a carnival attraction (in the cocktail jazz of “Racial Repertoire”).

He fully understands the loneliness of being a black man in a white man’s arena (the skanked-up “Color Line”) and the tools one can use to forget the injustice (the skanked-down “Bottle of Love”).

Yet he never matches hate with hate. He bravely reveals his issues with bigotry on the both the black side (in the ripping “I Was Afraid Of Malcolm”) and the white side (in the Southern gospel “Don’t Call Me Buckwheat”):

Don’t call me buckwheat
Don’t call me eightball
Don’t call me jig jig jig…Watch that word
Don’t call me Sambo
‘Cause it hurts
And that ain’t nice
And it sticks like white on rice

Sadly, this song was inspired by a trip he took to Shea Stadium. In the 1990s.

THE FALLOUT: Buckwheat sold nearly half a million copies in Europe, where he’s continually had strong success. Meanwhile back in the U.S.A. his domestic label gave him the moist handshake of indifference and abandoned the album, despite unanimous critical acclaim.

Don’t Call Me Buckwheat is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

Don’t Call Me Buckwheat dramatically draws the humane conclusion that despite the machinations of racism all people are, and will continue to be, equal. And so it shall be.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Society, decoded.

Cee-Lo: Cee-Lo Green… is the Soul Machine (2004)


Merrie melodies from God’s cog.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: In 2002 ex-Goodie Mob boss Cee-Lo dropped his experimental sonic salvo Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections to majestic acclaim and miniscule sales. Soldiering forward he erupted a new volcano of tunes in 2004’s powerhouse Cee-Lo Green… is the Soul Machine.

The son of Atlanta ministers, Cee-Lo considers his many musical talents to be divinely inspired, and considers his albums to be gospel music. But he’s definitely the Lord of a new church, as he preaches, teaches, sings and blings his sermons.

Blessed with a greasy, nasal, vinyl elastic boom of a voice, he can croon with the best and battle-rap the rest, as he does in the alleyway rumble of “Glockapella”. Smoothly sliding from Cab Calloway class in “Evening News” to spoken word electronica in “I Am Selling Soul”, he’s so excited to show us the depth of his talent.

He rolls us his humble side in the crisp survival tale“Living Again”, and waxes his superego over the slamming cartoon waltz of “Childz Play”:

The young Cee, the one treats everything the sun seek
I’m hollering, can’t help, I’m hungry
I cake rap, bake rap, sack rap, trap rap
Same shoes, same shirt, the same work, the same jerk
Claim hurt, the game hurt, my name work, it ain’t work
I’m fast, time fast, I’m first, I’m last
Psychic, I knew you would like it, like this
I write this, priceless, more then my right wrist
Cock back, block track, the beat bleed, speak read
Men eat weed, bead seed, I speed read, you need me…

Yes I can sing, and I can rap
And I can act, and I can dance
And I can dress, sign of the best

And it’s not bragging if you can pull it off, right? This nearly flawless genre-hopping album even had the support of his label’s president…

THE FALLOUT: …who was fired soon after the albums’ release. Without support from the top Soul Machine fell off the charts like birdshot off an elderly hunter’s face. The next year Cee-Lo co-wrote and produced the Pussycat Dolls international hit song “Don’t Cha”, thereby proving that God works in mysterious ways.

Cee-Lo Green… is the Soul Machine is available worldwide from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

Southern at the root but branching toward everywhere, Cee-Lo Green… is the Soul Machine is primed and powered to move your soul, your feet and your mind.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Garland Jeffrey’s bi-racial concept album, and why you haven’t heard it.

Burnt Sugar: Blood On The Leaf (2000) — now with podcast!


Listen to an exclusive interview with Greg Tate, leader of Burnt Sugar.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: Although best known for his wondrous music column in the Village Voice and for co-founding the Black Rock Coalition, Greg Tate is also the conductor for his genre-demolishing improvisational ensemble Burnt Sugar, whose first album is the heady and mesmerizing Blood on the Leaf. Inspired in part by Miles Davis’ freeform extravaganza Bitches Brew, Burnt Sugar births songs as living organisms, formed on the spot yet sounding uncannily like heavily practiced compositions.

This magic trick is the result of combining dozens of musicians from around the world, each bringing their unique slant to performance, and Tate’s use of Butch Morris’ Conduction System, by which one can “play” the orchestra members as one can play keys on a piano.

Which sounds downright bizarre if not next to impossible but, like hot sauce on a watermelon slice, Blood on the Leaf produces new flavors that would never otherwise exist.

Sonically Burnt Sugar reveals an endlessly inventive palette of textures, shifting from warmongering alien landings to chilled-out meditations, usually within the same song. Motifs vanish and return with new friends, sometimes dignified and dapper, sometimes troubled and frantic, and almost always funky.

Check out the interview and you can listen to Greg Tate discuss the challenges of promoting a Black orchestral improv group, their reception in Europe and their upcoming “R&B crossover album”.

Blood on the Leaf is available through Amazon and you can listen to tracks below:

Effortlessly emotional and three-dimensional, Blood on the Leaf sears into your veins like blood transfusion and charges you up with exotic quasi-legal nutrients.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Cee-Lo gets his freak flag dropped to half-mast.