Few artists making waves in 2010 have it goin’ on like Aloe Blacc. The kid looks like he makes his living as a Sam Cooke impersonator, he sings like some lost son of Tracy Chapman and Bill Withers, and he brings a fire to the mic that you only find in the bellies of guys like Sage Francis or Immortal Technique. Blacc’s voice bares all the guts and grit of the bad breaks and rough nights you need to live through to sing the stories he has to tell. Whereas Immortal Technique leans on obscenity as a gimmick through which his seething message burns through, Blacc needs only the ferocious beauty of the voice he was born with to make you think twice about the kind of world you consent to live in.
“If I share with you my story would you share a dollar with me?” asks the lowdown dreamer in “I Need a Dollar,” the knockout single from Blacc’s sophomore release with Stones Throw Records, Good Things. By the time Blacc’s done telling the tales of the characters he explores throughout the record, you’ll be eager to drop as many bones as you can to hear more–thanks in no small part to the uncommon restraint with which producers Leon Michels and Jeff Silverman allow those tales to be told. An instantly engaging piano riff and the occasional drizzle of brass is all Blacc’s voice needs to smoke “I Need a Dollar” down to the filter of its hard-luck confessions. A pipe organ jackknifes the mix on “If I” as Blacc’s plaintive vocals drown the song in their gush of cold rain, and Bill Withers’s “Lean on Me” plays somewhere off in the foggy distance of “Mama Hold My Hand,” a gorgeously understated ballad.
Withers is hardly the only echo of Blacc’s musical heritage to be heard on Good Things. You also hear Sam Cooke warning once again of the change that’s gonna come, you hear Al Green begging his long-gone baby to call him, you hear Solomon Burke damning the chains that bind him. “Soul” is a genre that has vanished since then into the glitzy vapor of contemporary R & B, a genre FM radio only bothers with if it’s dressed in lingerie and begging to get banged. And that, above all, is the reason that Aloe Blacc’s Good Things is such a warm and welcome surprise–a soul record that returns the genre to its rightful owners, a record that knows what’s up every time guys like Green or Burke step up to a mic in a town near you. This is soul for people who remember when the world first heard those Marvin Gaye records that now have their disciple in Aloe Blacc.
“My purpose for music is positive social change,” Blacc says. “Even if the music itself does not explicitly express anything that may signify positive social change, the product of the music will.” While Blacc is not too shy to toot his own horn–his profile at Stonesthrow.com daringly likens Good Things to Marvin Gaye’s watershed What’s Goin’ On–to suggest that no explicit call for “positive social change” exists in his music is to undersell his achievement.
The people you meet throughout Good Things are the people you know in your neighborhood–some of them, in fact, may be you. They are broke and scrounging for work wherever they may find it; they are stitching the busted seams of their hearts; they hear the whiskey bottle snicker as they try to stay clean one day at a time; they fall in love just as they fall through the cracks in their lives. They learn that “money don’t do everyone the same” and they walk the misted boundary between want and need. One too often looks just like the other in the songs Blacc sings–and in the lives of nearly anyone who hears them.
Blacc’s cynical eye calls to mind the bitter sarcasm with which Kanye West lambasted materialism and excess on his landmark 2004 LP, The College Dropout. But the difference here is that Blacc confesses where Kanye lectures; he shows you what Kanye is more content to merely tell you. The truth to be heard throughout Good Things–and there is plenty of it to be heard–is not necessarily anything you didn’t already know. You know it’s tough times in America, worse for some than they are for others, but there’s something remedial about staring into the mirror of another man’s soul and seeing your own reflection stare back at you, about crossing paths with the nameless others who know the dark moments of your days just as well as you do. That’s the crossroad these songs bring you to, the place where struggle makes brothers of us all.