Calling Fantastic Negrito genre-busting may be a bit of an exaggeration, but like Gary Clark Jr and Rag’n’Bone Man he’s one of those artists who’s doing something new by melding elements of old-fashioned blues to beats and rap stylings. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say, bearing in mind his overt interest in politics and social commentary, that he’s following in the tradition of Gil Scott-Heron, who described himself as a “scientist who is concerned with the origin of the blues”. Either way, it’s got Negrito some attention, garnering a Best Contemporary Blues Album Grammy for his 2016 album Last Days Of Oakland.
On new album Please Don’t Be Dead he sets out his stall with ‘Bad Guy Necessity’, utilising
familiar ingredients to both Oakland and his earlier Fantastic Negrito Deluxe EP. He growls out a verse with its melodic roots in the cotton fields over a metronomic beat and throbbing bass, until it collides with a modern-day soul chorus and sprinklings of Prince-like falsetto, and restrained guitar work.
|Fantastic Negrito - don't need this fascist groove thang|
‘A Cold November Street’ and ‘The Suit That Won’t Come Off’ have even more rootsy foundations. With understated organ accompaniment, the former develops a steady, ominous vibe from a low, work song foundation, with hints of the spooky old folk song ‘In The Pines’, which Negrito has covered previously, and adds a brief eruption of drums and guitar. The latter builds on a halting beat and a background field moan, and Negrito adds a pinging guitar break to its meditations on skin colour resulting in “standing on the outside”.
Negrito takes a resilient, hopeful stance though, as on ‘A Letter To Fear’, where a slow, nagging groove underpins the sweetly sung declaration that “Whatever you do to me, I will carry on” in response to imagery of mass shootings at the hands of semi-automatic weapons.
Negrito mixes things up with some other vibes too. ‘Bullshit Anthem’ dials up the funk enough to make like James Brown, as accompaniment for a simple mantra of “Take that bullshit, turn it into good shit – yeah!” Both ‘A Boy Named Andrew’ and ‘The Duffler’ exploit anthemic chants that sound more Native than African American, the latter especially punchy as a precursor to more soulful falsetto and wonky organ sounds, ahead of a piercing, all-too-brief guitar solo and a bridge that funks hard. And current single ‘Plastic Hamburgers’ rocks out with a strutting guitar riff and moments of Zep-like slitheriness as he demands we “break outta these chains that’s pullin’ us down.”
He can do dreamy too, as on the low key ‘Dark Windows’ with its almost Beatle-ish melody, flickers of cello, and restrained guitar fills. ‘Never Give Up’ is simpler still, a one minute interlude on which smooth harmonies celebrate “Walking in sunshine, walking through the city” over the rapped-out title.
Fantastic Negrito – aka Xavier Dphrepaulezz – has come a long way from the hospital bed cover photograph of Please Don’t Be Dead, picturing him after the car crash in 2000 that nearly killed him. My guess is that, with his Don King-like electro-shock hair and strident social commentary, he can shake this stuff up and deliver on stage too. But you don’t have to rely on my guesswork – he has a handful of British dates coming up. Check him out if you can.
Please Don’t Be Dead is released by Cooking Vinyl on 15 June.
Fantastic Negrito’s UK dates are:
24 May - Night & Day Café, Manchester
30 May – King Tut’s, Glasgow
1 June – Dingwalls, London (Future Juke Festival)
2 June – Thekla, Bristol