With a sound that is as forward-looking as it is aware of the past, poet/programmer Mike Ladd follows up his collaboration with keyboardist Vijay Iyer on last year's acclaimed What Is Language? (Psi) with Negrophilia - The Album. This time it's under his name rather than Iyer's and, consequently, a more specific look at his own musical and philosophical vision.
The term "poet" is used with intent, rather than "rapper." Ladd's prose aspires to something greater than simple rhyme, evoking a deeper lyricism and richer meaning as he mines the territory first explored by Petrine Archer-Straw's book Negrophilia , which looked at black culture in the Paris avant-garde in the 1920s. Like Archer-Straw, but in a more modern context, Ladd examines how black culture interjoins with a white society which sees that culture as a means to escape its own and, in the process, ends up trivializing and stereotyping that which it aspires to experience.
More an experiential journey, a performance piece where the music blends with Ladd's lyrics and a variety of sampled quotes, Negrophilia - The Album still has much to recommend on a purely musical level. The African folk music beginnings of "Fieldwork (The Ethnographers Daughter)" quickly shift into a polyrhythmic hip-hop/funk groove courtesy of Iyer and drummer Guillermo E. Brown, which then reaches into freer territory with trumpeter Roy Campbell and saxophonist Andrew Lamb's in-tandem improvisations, ultimately taking the piece into a more chaotic space. It is clear that Ladd's conception is to blend a historical perspective with a modernistic approach.
"In Perspective" is the only piece built from a live improvisation rather than the more reconstructive approach used for the rest of the record. Yet as much as tape loops, samples, and electronics are used to create a musical pastiche, there's something natural and organic about the way Ladd blends everything together. Even on tracks like "Worldwide Shrinkwrap," which has an almost industrial ambience over which Ladd speaks, Lamb's flutes and Iyer's blocky piano keep things feeling instinctive and unforced.
As on earlier Ladd titles, specifically Welcome to the Afterfuture (Ozone, 2000), Ladd looks for ways to blend an intelligent hip-hop mentality with more avant concerns. "Back at Ya" innovatively blends a certain new music sensibility with free improvisation and, ultimately, a solid backbeat. "Sam and Milli Dine Out" has a certain trance-like quality, courtesy of Iyer's minimalist piano and Campbell's post-Miles muted trumpet, as does "Nancy and Carl Go Christmas Shopping," where a simple and insistently repeated bass line acts as an anchor for Iyer's heavily processed keyboards and a variety of reconstructed tape loop themes that bring to mind a more rhythmically-driven Brian Eno.
Thirsty Ear has long been exploring the juncture between free jazz, ambient music, hip-hop and other styles. With Negrophilia the label comes, thanks to Ladd, as close as it's ever been to realizing a true integration of these diverse interests.
Personnel: Mike Ladd (vocals, programming), Vijay Iyer (piano, organ, synthesizer), Guillermo E. Brown (drums, electronics), Andrew Lamb (winds), Roy Campbell (trumpet), Bruce Grant (tape loops)