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Album Review: José James – While You Were Sleeping

3 min read

For almost half a century now, Minnesota has boasted a colourful (OK, mainly purple) history of world-class funk and R&B. Like all sub-genres, the “Minneapolis Sound” as it is often called, has evolved over time (again, chiefly at the whim of one Prince Rogers Nelson) and yet we find ourselves here in 2014 – a point in music’s rich history when innovation and scope are often traded in for YouTube views and Twitter followers – with “Legacy Artists” like Prince sadly thin on the ground. Enter Minneapolis native José James whose fourth album While You Were Sleeping (his second for legendary jazz label Blue Note) chops and changes from the deepest, grimiest funk imaginable to ‘90s shoegaze, jazz-informed-prog, gospel and everything in between.

Jose James - While You Were SleepingIt’s worth noting from the beginning that unlike most of his R&B contemporaries, James isn’t trying to snare the coveted market-share of a Justin Timberlake/Pharrell/Bruno Mars level superstar – the focus of While You Were Sleeping is aimed more at genre-bending musicianship and challenging arrangements. With the strange bedfellows of hip hop and jazz having courted each other for well over a decade now, this crossover seems to have come to a glorious head over the last few years with both star-studded Black Radio albums by the Robert Glasper Experiment and Wise Up Ghost – the collaborative album between Elvis Costello and The Roots finding success on Blue Note as well as countless others the world over. While You Were Sleeping is no different.

Opening with the laid back future-funk of Angel, from the get-go James’ bluesy howl works equally well as a sensual centerpiece and a harmonically sophisticated backing-vocal machine. The drunken slow-jam groove of U R The 1 (always nice to see Prince’s grammar sneaking through) is a great canvas for not only José’s voice, but some fascinating synth work yet track three, the title track, is where things start to get interesting. Clocking in at just under 6 ½ minutes, its sprawling acoustic intro builds to an unapologetic, Pink Floyd level prog-rock opus. Anywhere U Go takes a fairly standard punk riff and mutates it to some pretty magical intergalactic jazz whereas Bodhisattva is definitely the eastern-influenced spiritual journey its title suggests.

The nuanced folk of 4 Noble Truths, with its rich strings and dynamic sweeps plays like a reverent but still completely original update of Grace by Jeff Buckley before up-and-comer Becca Stevens (whose jazz credibility checks out with nods from heavyweights Kurt Elling and Brad Mehldau) reinforces the gorgeous fragility of the sparseness heard in Dragon. The short instrumental interlude Salaam pays homage to one of jazz’s most unlikely recent heroes, the late Detroit beatmaker J Dilla but the record reaches somewhat of a plateau on the somewhat one-note Without U (Not a bad effort to have your first dud track land 9th in the album however).

Lead single EveryLittleThing has a real late-‘90s-rock feel underscoring some of the more ambitious vocal layering on While You Were Sleeping and yet the hook unfortunately doesn’t really soar to the heights required to cross over into the “pop” spectrum. After dipping back into some more atmospheric pseudo-jazz on xx, the album ends with Simply Beautiful – the most “trad-jazz” track with a soulfully searing trumpet solo from Blue Note label-mate Takuya Kuroda.

While You Were Sleeping covers an almost insane amount of musical ground and with only a small handful of “swing-and-a-miss” tracks; the ambition of José and his incredible band largely pays off. For someone who is unlikely to have the bright lights of international superstardom thrust on him any time soon, James has the freedom to make any kind of record he deems fit so to his already loyal fanbase (as well as the kind of audience this music usually hopes to attract and richly deserves), this fourth album shows a true artist who is in music for the long haul. In short, the world needs more artists like José James.