Rating: 4 out of 5 Potholes
It’s about time we got an album that is just as much a nod to the past as it is a fresh and vibrant update of contemporary urban music. For the sake of clarity, we can call José James’ BlackMagic a neo-soul album, but rest assured, it is so much more. Signed to Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood label, José James introduced the world to his unique brand of music that is equal parts soul, jazz, electronica, and hip-hop with his stunning 2008 debut, The Dreamer.
BlackMagic opens with the silky “Code” produced by Flying Lotus, which introduces José’s supreme jazz sensibilities as he uses his baritone voice to complement the production, rather than to overpower it. There is never a note that José strains to reach as he stays comfortably within his range. And this is not out of laziness, but rather it is by design; it adds a breeziness to the music that could not be achieved otherwise.
It isn’t long before José unlocks his adoration for various musical genres, venturing into hip-hop on “Lay You Down” and “Promise In Love”. The former sounds as if it is a long-lost track from the early Soulquarian days, while the latter, produced by DJ Mitsu the Beats (whose 2009 album the track first appeared on), maintains a smooth appreciation for jazz, yet stays firmly rooted in boom-bap. After a somewhat out of place foray into nu-jazz with “Warrior”, José reverts to his bread and butter for the rest of the album: fluid jazz fused with warm soul.
There is an overarching theme to the album – love – and it works both for and against José. Certainly José’s style is best suited for songs about love, as his vocal delivery excels on the seductive “Save Your Love For Me” and the aforementioned “Lay You Down”. However, it also leaves much to be desired from the overall content. While the actual songwriting is strong, the lyrics tend to play it safe for the most part, with few risks taken.
Nonetheless, with music this gorgeous, safe songwriting is not too big of a concern. The focus of this album is the music. Finite keys and horns tease the listener as they dart in and out. The liquid bass guitars drive the tracks while the drums provide a sure and steady structure. And then there’s José, whose voice is as magical as the title indicates. Though not a definitive masterpiece, BlackMagic proves that José and crew have more than enough tricks up their collective sleeves to create vivid, entertaining music.