You might have imagined that Jon Batiste’s triumph at the 2022 Grammy awards would be greeted with delight. He won more gongs than anyone else: five in total, becoming the first Black artist to win album of the year, for 2021’s We Are, in 14 years. Here was a virtuoso musician who existed on the margins of the mainstream – best-known as the bandleader on Stephen Colbert’s talkshow and the author of the “user-friendly jazz songs” from the Disney film Soul – hoisted into the spotlight by dint of his talent alone.
Instead, his success was more ambivalently received. Batiste, the naysayers suggested, was was a safe choice, more redolent of the past than the musical present. We Are had abandoned the traditionalist jazz found on his previous album, 2018’s Hollywood Africans, in favour of soul with a distinct retro flavour. Batiste, one writer complained, wasn’t “someone at the forefront of this century’s defining hip-hop and R&B sounds”.
Listening to World Music Radio, you wonder whether that criticism lodged with Batiste, whether he was keen to use his increased profile – in addition to his Grammy haul, the Soul OST won him an Oscar and a Golden Globe – as a platform to reach a wider audience, or if he is just unwilling to repeat himself. For whatever reason, We Are’s follow-up is a markedly different beast to its predecessor. It posits Batiste as a very 21st century kind of artist: pop-facing, unafraid of things that Julliard-trained jazz musicians tend to look askance at, among them AutoTune and cravenly manufactured pop. Instead of Trombone Shorty and Mavis Staples, it features K-pop quartet NewJeans, Lana Del Rey and Leigh-Anne Pinnock of Little Mix, part of a supporting cast required to fulfil Batiste’s vision of modern pop, one in which music from the US, east Asia, Africa and South America forms a kaleidoscopic whole.
It’s at this point you might find yourself suggesting he hangs on a minute: isn’t that what the pop charts are already like? This is an era in which Nigerian Afrobeats, K-pop, hip-hop and Latin American reggaeton happily coexist in the Top 20. It’s an argument underlined by the fact that virtually all Batiste’s guests are already stars: NewJeans’ last EP made No 1 in the US; Colombian singer Camillo’s 2021 album Mis Manos went double platinum and won a Grammy.
It’s also underlined by some of the music on World Radio. The early tracks Raindance and Be Who You Are variously involve Camillo, NewJeans, South African Ampiano producers Native Soul and Atlanta rapper JID, which seems an awful lot of eclectic talent to engage in making amiable beach bar pop-reggae. It is not the last time you find yourself listening to something that sounds remarkably familiar: big-room pop EDM (Worship), the clipped mid-80s electropop-inspired sound that underpinned Ed Sheeran’s Bad Habits and Harry Styles’ As It Was (Calling Your Name), epic ballads in piano, synth-based, Lana Del Rey-ish forms (Butterfly, Running Away and the Del Rey-featuring Life Lesson respectively). It’s worth noting that the songs are tightly written and hooky, but it is hard to see exactly what Batiste is bringing to the table: even the album’s radio show concept, complete with between-song announcements by a DJ, is pretty well-worn.
But equally, there are points when something original sparks. My Heart is fantastic, a fragmented, lo-fi track where Rita Payés’ Spanish-language vocals and trombone collide with a doo-wop-inspired melody and a jazz trumpet solo. Boom for Real stirs together a disco beat with a vaguely yacht rock-esque song, coats both in distortion and throws in 30 seconds of Batiste’s atonal piano improv and melodica. The ramshackle country rock and drawled sprechgesang vocals of Master Power is great, and it is hard not to smile at the middle finger to the jazz establishment that is easy listening star Kenny G soloing away on Clair de Lune.
The highlight is Uneasy: a more fractured, electronic take on We Are’s neo-soul style, synthesisers weaving around Batiste’s falsetto vocal. There’s a fabulous moment when Lil Wayne takes over the microphone, and everything else drops out except the beat and Batiste’s piano, which slowly shifts from accompanying the rapper to battling him for space, becoming ever-more jagged and jarring.
It is fresh and daring – and you wish there were more moments like it. If pop has a problem in 2023, it is not a lack of geographical diversity, but a paucity of new ideas. World Music Radio proves that Jon Batiste is capable of coming up with them. They seem to arrive when he sounds most like himself: an artist with jazz background, a deep knowledge of musical history and an iconoclastic streak. It also proves he is capable of sublimating his own individuality to fit in;when it tries too hard, it simply adds to the slush pile of nondescript pop.
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