August Greene Drop a Strong Jazz-Rap Hybrid With Self-Titled Album
Hip-hop's newest supergroup emerged in January after Common announced that himself, Grammy-winning jazz percussionist Karriem Riggins and acclaimed pianist Robert Glasper had teamed up to form August Greene. Less than two months later, the trio's eponymous debut offering is here. While Com's spoken-word flow can get monotonous and the album is a bit too one-note to live up to the Chicago legend's best LPs, it's a solid first outing for a group that's only been formally united for a relatively short period of time.
August Greene begins with "Meditation," which is fitting for an album that plays out like one. Merging his fatherly baritone and spoken-word flow with the mellow snares and supple keys of Riggins and Glasper, Com launches into pensive reflection about whether he's "born to win or born to sin," Black plight and man's capacity for growth despite human imperfection. Musically and lyrically, the track plays like a gloomier version of Common's Be intro, with its solemn instrumentation and a more somber outlook. Similarly, the tone of August Greene as a whole is like dark chocolate: rich and wholesome, but not always fun.
The album's meditative vibe continues with "Black Kennedy," which finds the Windy City poet nodding to the iconic U.S. president John F. Kennedy while also imagining himself as Commander in Chief. This one's a bit more upbeat and escapist. "The jurisdiction of justice, nonfiction of a hustler's heart/From dust we start/And we must embark to passion mark the people/Had our first black prez, I'ma be the sequel," Com spits on another tranquil jazz instrumental from Riggins and Glasper.
Although he can lapse into bouts of corniness with some of his one-liners, Com's rapping is as sharp as ever on August Greene, as he regularly flaunts technically precise rhyme schemes and his ability to channel hope, desperation and perseverance through poetry. "Living in ambition on a mission impossible/Envision optimism through a prism that's optical/To see through obstacles and be remarkable," he spits on the Brandy-assisted "Optimistic," a track that makes success sound like merely an attitude shift away.
Thematically, August Greene finds Common tackling familiar topics like his troubles with romantic love ("Fly Away"), the potential for self-actualization ("Optimistic") and inspiring Black excellence within himself and others ("This Time," "No Apologies"). Yet while his lyrics are almost always poignant, his emotions and tonal inflections don't feel as varied or intense as they were on Common's last album, Black America Again, as he sounds like his heart rate never raises above 70 bpm for most of the project. The fire and fury of Nobody's Smiling and Black America Again is simply nowhere to be found on August Greene. If Riggins and Glasper's jazzy soundbeds—rich as they are—were a bit more dynamic, that lack of variance wouldn't stick out quite as much, but they aren't, and it does.
The lack of dynamism in August Greene is made a bit more disappointing when you realize that Riggins and Glasper have worked with Com a ton over the years. The titular track from Black America Again rings through with more emotional urgency than any single offering on August Greene. Some of this could be what comes with making more of an outright jazz-rap album, but the lack of tone switches and subdued nature of the entire project prevents any one song from reaching the heights of Com's best work.
With all that said, dark chocolate—though not especially appealing for the sweet-toothed—is still good for you. So is August Greene's self-titled debut, a project filled with rich, jazzy vibes and all the tight lyricism we've come to expect from one of Chicago's very best.
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