In most genres of music, artists compete to be the biggest, baddest kids on the block. Rap, for example, is wrought with lyrical grudge matches — Canibus vs. LL Cool J, Easy E vs. Dr. Dre, etc. — each bragging that he does the same thing better than the next guy. The cool understatement of R&B makes it a bit less susceptible to the boasts of vocal hot-heads. But the degree to which artists compete stems directly from the amount of overpopulation in a particular genre of music, and R&B has more than its share of filler artists.
Jamiroquai, however, has made a career of self-competition precisely because his funky, psychedelic brand of R&B finds very few challengers entering the ring. Each of his albums has pushed funk in some new direction, be it psychedelia or pop, and on his latest album the exploration continues.
A Funk Odyssey lives up to its title’s promise and serves up an experimental dose of funk stretching. Not every song flaunts the feel of his previous, fast-dancing singles “Canned Heat” and “Virtual Insanity,” but Jamiroquai’s latest effort sparks interest with its greater variety.
In fact, A Funk Odyssey branches out into some decidedly atypical areas for a funk album. In “Black Crow,” a lone acoustic guitar underlines lyrics that usually wouldn’t be found anywhere near a party anthem. “I wonder where that black crow sleeps as day beckons the night/ or if he even sleeps at all/ I wonder what he thinks of all the human traffic far below/ the trouble on the road he saw so long.”
In “Picture of My Life,” the acoustic guitar returns and plays above a salsa sing-along that pushes pointedly against the song’s tone of depression and regret. The funk on this track is the downtrodden kind, far less bootylicious than, say, a Parliament party jam.
The album, however, is all about balance. “Twenty Zero One” carries with it a distorted guitar riff that curbs even the album’s mellowest moments in favor of a heavy vibe. Even Jamiroquai’s liquidly glassy voice distorts to help form the electric wall that the song’s narrator can’t seem to break through. Jamiroquai’s craft is in creating a sound that makes the metaphor his song suggests: the music is the thing, not the artist who creates it. The artist is never ahead of his work.
Certainly some of the singles on A Funk Odyssey will leap off the album and make their way onto MTV, but the album’s best moments will stay where they should–grounding this genre-stretching experience with introversion, emotion, and craft. This is not an uncompromising “throw your hands in the air” sort of effort. A more indicative tag line might be “point your head to the ground and think about the sound.”
Archived article by Ari Fontecchio