7.1 Album Picks

Curated for each issue of Content by Universal Grammar, Album Picks are highlights of recent music releases by some of Universal Grammar’s favorite artists. These picks read less like reviews and more like contextual introductions to each artist and their work: they aim to explore the cultural impact of the release itself in 300 words or less.

Caroline Beleno of Universal Grammar

By FireHiatus Kaiyote
By Fire EP

With their debut, this band—lead vocalist Nai Palm, drummer Perin Moss, synthesist Simon Mavin, and electronic gadget player and keyboarder Paul Bender—unleashed themselves to the planet. Having landed a show with them back on Halloween 2013 at the Live At The Pagoda music series, I can tell you that Hiatus Kaiyote were the buzz of the earth. Soon afterwards, they earned a Grammy nomination for their song “Nakamarra,” which featured a verse by Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest. This latest EP, By Fire, displays their relentlessness in destroying headphones and stages as they touch the hearts and imaginations of soul heads everywhere.

Whether you want to label this latest EP future soul, future jazz, or neo-soul, the common denominator is soul. The soul of Melbourne? Perhaps. Australia and their next-door neighbors, New Zealand, have been putting out unbelievably high quality soul music—mixing in electronic and funk flavors, too. A new album is looming, as well as a new US tour. Stay locked.

Early RiserTaylor McFerrin
Early Riser LP

Recently, Taylor McFerrin blessed a capacity audience stuffed inside The Continental in downtown San Jose with an inspired performance for Universal Grammar’s collaboration with San Jose Jazz at the 2015 Winter Fest. Along with the improvisational elements of his performance, the beauty of his debut release, Early Riser, was in full display. Early Riser, released late last year, was an easy pick for my “Best of 2014” list. Released on the genre-bending jazz-electronic futurist label Brainfeeder, the project is peppered with a who’s who of UG past performers and favorites, including Robert Glasper, Thundercat, and Nai Palm (of Hiatus Kaiyote). One of the standout tracks, “Decisions,” features another emerging voice in Emily King. The song is a dreamy, space-travelin’ piece with Emily laying down the lyrical love game: “I’ll ride with you if it’s alright with you / I wanna drive to the beach, spend my life with you / Drift away to the river in the sky with you.”

Tuxedo LP

Tuxedo is the collaboration of two Grammy-nominated artists: Detroit’s Mayer Hawthorne and Seattle’s Jake One. Their debut album is a self-titled release on the heavyweight indie imprint Stonesthrow. This is Mayer’s fourth album, and his second on the label that launched him.

Tuxedo’s sound comes with one basic element: funk. An ode to the kind of disco funk I used to listen to in my mom’s Monte Carlo in the ’80s, with the station tuned to KFRC or KSOL, and Chic, Shalamar, and Zapp playing. Released on March 3 in every format, you can also cop the cassette tape version of this album. I know I did, and it’s one of those albums you press “play” and then just ride and cruise out to.

Por VidaKali Uchis
Por Vida EP

The Por Vida studio EP is a more polished offering than the mixtape Drunken Babble, with the progression in music-making in full swing. Kali’s vocal stylings are a bit more sophisticated, as highlighted by the tune “Know What I Want,” which displays her unique sing-song-rap over a rock-steady groove. Kali, a Columbiana living in Virginia, has a voice that’s Erykah Badu meets Amy Winehouse. The EP also features production by Universal Grammar favorites, in Montreal’s Kaytranada, Tyler The Creator, and Badbadnotgood. While enjoying the “now” with her current release, playing it out in the clubs I DJ at, I am also looking forward to the bright future of Kali Uchis. And hopefully an appearance in San Jose.

Black MessiahD’Angelo and the Vanguard
Black Messiah LP

A breath of fresh air, the return of D’Angelo is not too late. Without notice, the album Black Messiah was left on our doorstep with a knock, but no one to greet, in December of last year. The internet erupted in a D’Angelo takeover, and I immediately copped the album on iTunes, and later the physical format on CD, and now I’m looking to get the vinyl version. (It’s what I do, when I really, really dig something. It’s the collector in me.)

The album is an extension of where D’Angelo left off with Voodoo, suggesting (or so say some of my peers) that this album belongs in 2008. I somewhat agree, but timeless music doesn’t exist for a specific year alone, and as Voodoo did then, this album transcends time. However, while Voodoo was quite simply one of the best albums of all time, Black Messiah doesn’t quite make that leap. That said, no one makes soul music like D’Angelo, and these 12 tracks are a great addition to the catalog. His lyrics speak to the times, and his artistry and his musicianship have bounded forward.

Thomas AguilarPicks by Thomas Aguilar: Tommy has been presenting and promoting artists, DJs, and musicians from all over the globe in his hometown and other parts of the Bay for 15 plus years under the moniker Universal Grammar. Under the nom de plume “Charle Brown,” he shares his mix of global groove, soul, R&B, jazz, electronic, hip hop, funk, house, and Latin to his hometown audience, San Jose.

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