It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.
The 21st century was a fallow one for neo-soul, an appellation that was once shorthand for a new generation of smooth operators among them D'Angelo, Maxwell and Erykah Badu. Aside from her exploratory and open-ended EP Worldwide Underground in 2003, Badu had been quiet, watching a strain of hip-hop-influenced R&B slowly take over the pop charts. When Badu released New AmErykah in 2008, her intentions were made clear amid chiming and handclaps on opening track "The Healer": "Re-boot, re-fresh, re-start." Badu revealed herself to be an R&B songstress who was comfortable cooing amid hip-hop's concusses (check the flute and boom-tick of "Soldier"); her verses are abstract, yet still political. As she told Vibe: "I would call New AmErykah political/analytical/left brain/patriarchal." But Badu's idea of being analytical and logical would serve as anyone else's right brain. Mercurial from moment to moment, the sound palette, crafted by Badu along with Sa-Ra Creative Partners, jazz vibraphonist Roy Ayers, and Madlib, is indulgent yet focused, its funk tightly-coiled (see the Curtis Mayfield-looping squiggles of "Master Teacher") and its jazzy explorations open-ended. Throughout the album, interludes speak to Badu's state of mind. Acerbic diatribes lifted from Network about our consumer society are offset by squeaky voices referencing Kemetic goddess Ma'at's 42 laws. Erykah sounds like she's been absorbing Parliament Funkadelic, left-wing conspiracy talk radio and Saturday morning cartoons in equal measure, the end result being a beautiful mess of an R&B album that fully embraced what at the end of the Bush Administration surely seemed like the end times.
There are more ambitious and undeniable Funkadelic albums to be had, and sister act Parliament's platters are more uptight, outta sight, and funkified. But none of those albums make a mess as glorious as 1973's Cosmic Slop. Over a cacophony of duck calls and handclaps, opener "Nappy Dugout" is a street party for what French painter Gustav Courbet once deemed "l'origin du monde." "No Compute" features come-ons both bullshit and smooth, ending with the line: "Spit don't make no babies." Doo-wop and group-harmonizing infiltrate the songs, but ringleader George Clinton's id squiggles throughout, and the album's sexual politics reveal a darker cast. The title track's tale of a mother-turned-ho to support her kids pulls no punches, even as it soars on the lead guitar of new member Gary Shider. The sludgy epic of "March to the Witch's Castle" and its processional of broken Vietnam vets returning home projects a mindstate as harrowing as any shellshocked psyche.
The Funk Doctor Spock
Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg weren't the only duo smoking endo and listening to every ParlaFunkadelicment thang in the early '90s. Out on the East Coast, former EPMD member Erick Sermon and his new prodigy, New Jersey rapper Reggie "Redman" Noble, were also developing a hip-hop sound deeply indebted to P-Funk. Even the deaf jammers could note the influence, the album cover of Dare Iz A Darkside literally shouting out Funkadelic's Maggot Brain. With helium-high voices (as well as Redman's gravelly "ah-ah"), spaceship-conjuring synths, and sticky-icky basslines all around, Sermon turned Redman loose on his second album. And while radio hits eluded it, it's a wild, humorous, highly idiosyncratic album, alone in the street-tough golden era of East Coast rap. Take for example first single "Rockafella." It visits well-trod ground, drawing on sampled-to-death cuts "I Want To Do Something Freaky to You" and "Flashlight," but Redman's gruff voice, viscous wordplay and streetwise persona run buckwild on the track. Fairy dust sprinkles across the boom-bap of "Wuditlooklike," shot through with squeaky alien voices, crotchety old men, radio DJ shout-outs and Redman's smoky throat. From here, he'd only get higher.
The Dread at the Controls
In 1976, Jamaican Broadcasting Corporation let upstart transmitter engineer Michael Campbell take over the airwaves from midnight to 4 a.m., revolutionizing not only that country's popular music but soon after the music emanating from Britain. Focusing exclusively on the homegrown grooves of Lee Perry, Joe Gibbs, Augustus Pablo, Sir Coxsone Dobb, King Tubby and other producers, Mikey Dread wove spaced-out aural collages of the island's biggest dancehall hits. He would soon go on to collaborate with the likes of the Clash and UB40, spreading Jamaican music out even further. This 1976 album mixes infinitely-dubbed rhythms with all sorts of space debris floating about, never settling on one groove for more than a few minutes before flying off to the next asteroid. Schizophrenic sonic shifts, myriad guest vocalists (see the re-working of Althea and Donna's massive "Uptown Top Ranking" as "JBC Days & Porper Education Dub") and snippets of Dread's hilarious radio show drops makes for a headswimming dub album.
As Sa-Ra Creative Partners, the trio of Om'Mas Keith, Taz Arnold and Shafiq Husay have remained knee-deep in avant-garde underground hip-hop productions while also fucking with mainstream rap. Being signed to Kanye West's G.O.O.D. Records or having Om'Mas appear on Diddy's television show, Making His Band, is all well and good, but Sa-Ra still play by their own rules. Responsible for producing half of the intergalactic funk of New AmErykah, on their own album Sa-Ra float even further out in space. "Spacefruit" has jazzy flute and bossa nova undertones while "Dirty Beauty" slows down prime-era Prince. Off-kilter vocals, psilosybic-friendly funk flourishes and speed shifts dominate the proceedings and lyrics talk up getting high, getting boned and floating in outer space (not necessarily in that order), but moments like the bittersweet "Melodee N'Mynor" and a spot-on cover of Sly and the Family Stone's "Just Like a Baby" reveals the heart in these space cadets.
The Star-Crossed Kitty
Is any R&B singer more star-crossed than Joi Gilliam? Her career stretches back even further than that of Erykah Badu's, with her first album dropping way back in '94, thus earning her a "neo-soul" tag first. But Joi's path through mainstream R&B has been treacherous. Her second album, 1996's Amoeba Cleansing Syndrome, had two separate record companies shutter their doors before it could be released (it's commercially unavailable to this day), while her joining with Raphael Saddiq's girl group Lucy Pearl resulted in the band breaking up before its album could get released. Her association with the Outkast/Dungeon Family/Goodie Mob axis should have helped her gain a foothold in the new century, but 2002's chameleon-like Star Kitty's Revenge got her unceremoniously dropped from Universal. Sultry, intelligent, and well-versed in the history of R&B, it's hard to hear where it doesn't succeed. Lush single "Missin' You" has wafting jazz chords and tight guitar lines as she fries chicken and pines for her lover's return while the funky "Crave" features wormhole bass and backing vocals sure to make please Prince fans. The sparse slink of "It's Your Life" cops a vocal line from Sly's "Runnin' Away," twisted by Joi into something affirmative. Here's hoping she gets her revenge on the record industry yet.