It’s not often you see someone as talented and joyous Jon Batiste. I can’t think of any other artist that simultaneously lays down a piano melody and worldly wisdom.
Mr. Batiste translates that same wisdom and experience into every note of his music. The dedicated jazz musician responsible for the Stay Human Band, a healthy helping of great records, and the beautiful soundtrack of Pixar’s Soul, Batiste is a man whose experience is a perfect match for the topics of life, love, and music he tackles. He is the ideal role model to exist in a world that thrives off negativity…
His solution to this negativity? Well, besides his sage wisdom and bright smile, Batiste opts to “tell the truth” in his music, and his latest album, We Are, very much feels like the truth of life. It’s about growth, about loving one another, and embracing the feeling of being alive. As a buffet-mix of jazz, funk, hip-hop, blues, gospel, and every other genre under the sun, We Are is the fuel to getting up and leaving the house with a smile on your face.
Now, what do I mean when I say that the music here is happy? Many sugary pop acts incorporate bliss into their music… but not in a healthy way. It’s far too easy to simply forgo tension, lean on trends, and ignore reality; while it sounds good at first, it eventually becomes as disposable as a candy wrapper. Batiste’s music, meanwhile, is cinematic, timeless, and has a human touch. It feels like it was designed to make you have fun. Take gospel-themed opener “We Are,” where the listener is taken on a spiritual journey accompanied by gorgeous choir vocals, pounding marching band drums, and Batiste’s whip-smart vocals and instrumentation. It’s very much a taster of what’s to come: the many sounds within Batiste’s head coming together in a creative, uplifting manner.
The rest of We Are is similarly all-encompassing in terms of sound. Batiste’s production choices are deliciously impactful, with every key and chord fine-tuned to perfection. “TELL THE TRUTH” is an old-fashioned jazz/blues banger with swaggering horns and playful piano chords, with Batiste’s mantra of “tell the truth” being an infectious refrain. “CRY” is a classic blues slow burn, with twangy guitars and moody harmonies syncopating with Batiste’s swaggering depression beautifully. It feels like it could have been recorded 70 years ago and 5 years from now at the same time…a feeling that runs throughout the record. It’s satisfying to hear music that you know will age like fine wine. If a song like the jaunty serenade “I NEED YOU” won’t age well, I don’t know what will.
One of the best things that Batiste does on this record is rip the rug from under the listener. Right as I settle into the comforting, soulful sounds of this album, Batiste manages to make some truly weird, wonderful songs. “WHATCHUTALKINBOUT” is a genius track, featuring a driving drum beat and some of the fastest rapping I’ve heard in 2020. Batiste’s mastery of this beat is incredible, his cadence moving at a blistering pace as the beat incorporates backing vocals, horn blasts, and a electronic-tinged outro. This song also makes for a great introduction to the arrangements on this album. No song grows too stale, often changing in tempo and instrumentation in a seamless fashion. They aren’t beat switches per se, more like a wall of sound being constructed around Batiste as he melds with the music. “ADULTHOOD” is arguably the most bare song in the album at first, with plinking keys and thin percussion encompassing Batiste’s earnest thoughts on growing older. As the emotion rises, more vocals are added to the back, the drumming gets faster, and a flashy horn section caps off the song in a fantastic finish. It reminds me a lot of D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” but it forgoes sexuality in favor of introspection and instrumental bliss. On the opposite end, in terms of mood, is the fantastic funk jam “SHOW ME THE WAY.” To me, it sounds like a mix of The Isley Brothers, G-Unit’s “Wanna Get To Know You”, and something you’d see Marvin Gaye sing over. The guitar licks are smooth as butter, the percussion bumps hard in the whip, and Batiste’s affectionate pleas are heartwarming as hell. It’s a nice sonic highlight on the album’s back end, and it’s been in rotation for a while in my playlist.
Now, before we address the ending we have to address Batiste’s penmanship here.
Mr. Batiste’s approach to lyrics on this album may be my favorite aspect of it. He opts for straightforward, blunt, and heartfelt emotion. He doesn’t drape his words in overly complex or flashy vocabulary; he simply sings like he speaks (which is a joy to hear, by the way). His writing is catchy, his hooks pop, and his heart bleeds into every syllable. Two of the best songs on the album, in my opinion anyway, are also two of his best written. “BOYHOOD” is a fantastic nostalgia trip to Jon Batiste’s childhood. His storytelling is picture perfect, painting his New Orleans home life as something simultaneously casual and majestic. His singing on the hook here is haunting, and as the song incorporates a piano solo, PJ Morton’s tear-inducing bridge, and a gorgeous horn outro, you can’t help but miss your fam back home. “SING,” the album’s last full track, is a quiet finale. Batiste proclaims his love of music over gorgeous horns and playful grand pianos, sermon to the human soul.
I understand now why Mr. John Batiste was tapped by Pixar to make the soundtrack for Soul: he makes music that moves your very being. Every track here really pulls out all the stops, instrumentally, lyrically, vocally. It’s a tight, 38 minute trip through human happiness that serves as a great way to cope with the bad energy life always wants to throw at us. This is the kind of album that is always serving up a smile, even in the darkest times.
Tracks to Save: “WE ARE,” “CRY,” “BOY HOOD,” “ADULTHOOD,” “SHOW ME THE WAY,” “SING”
Special thanks to Ms. Olivia Trejo and the rest of the 1924 team for putting us onto this incredible album! Special thanks to Mr. Batiste and his team as well; this album is going to be quite the experience for those who give it a listen…
So give it a shot!
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