Review: Esperanza Spalding's Emily's D+Evolution

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THIS IS AN ALBUM OF FIRSTS for Esperanza Spalding. Emily’s D+Evolution is her first album of almost all original compositions (the only cover here is “I Want It Now”, from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) and her first album on which she has embraced a heavier, often guitar based sound. As a result, despite her past forays into classically influenced territory (Chamber Music Society) and mixes of jazz and soul elements with a pop sensibility (Radio Music Society), this is arguably her first album that runs a serious risk of alienating some of her fan base. I could be wrong (what do I know really?), but with the singles of her last (and highest selling) album being the pop-soul of “Black Gold” and a cover of a Michael Jackson classic (“I Can't Help It”) it is pretty easy to see how someone who hasn't paid that much attention to her artistic evolution since 2012 (the singles from D+Evolution are not chart topping hits, after all) could find this album, opening with some dark keys that lead into some heavy guitar playing that has more in common with a Cream record than her past efforts, more than a bit surprising.

That said, for those that have been tuned into to Esperanza’s recent activities, via her Facebook, Twitter and especially through a great, vibrant performance she gave for Skype’s concert series (that I specifically avoided until now to not spoil the album for me), the musical direction this album was going in was pretty obvious. All of these things have indicated that with Emily’s D+Evolution, Esperanza was blatantly trying to distance herself from her past work. The biggest evidence of this distance, besides the release of “One” and “Good Lava”, was Esperanza presenting this work, not as Esperanza, but as a new character, Emily, which is actually her middle name. With Bowie’s recent passing and the fact that his long-time collaborator Tony Visconti co-produced 6 tracks on this record, it’s hard to resist the temptation to call Esperanza’s presentation of Emily a bit Bowie-inspired or at least Bowie-ish. All of the imagery surrounding this album, including how she dresses and does her hair, is substantially different from what her image was in the past—Ziggy or the Thin White Duke would know a thing or two about that. Much of Esperanza’s promotion of the album on Twitter is centered around “#MeetEmily” and in a recent Billboard interview, Esperanza herself has described Emily as “like a fairy”, someone who “doesn't take herself seriously.” For Esperanza, these “serious” things “aren't [Emily’s] job” because “she didn't come here to make albums, do shows, to ‘be somebody’.” Esperanza sees these activities as part of Esperanza’s job, which she described as “working for Emily, making the right circumstances for her to feel free to come out and play”—and play she does. All respect to her past recordings, but this is easily her best project to date.

Emily’s D+Revolution is a guitar filled album based around the power trio of Esperanza (lead vocals, bass), Matthew Stevens (guitar) and Kareem Riggins/Justin Tyson (drums), with help from Corey King (keyboard/trumpet/background vocals), Emily Elbert (background vocals) and other background vocalists. The record has various facets of jazz, folk, and rock, which occasionally leans towards the prog-ish and psychedelic. I imagine the question from many longtime fans, especially with things like “Good Lava” and “Funk The Fear”, that could easily come off as more 60s rock and 70s funk inspired than anything, will be “is there even any jazz in her music anymore?”. This opens up a can of worms—defining “jazz” is something that has continuously been debated, especially since Miles Davis’ journey into funk and fusion after the first great quintet. Despite its genre ambiguity, this album definitely has jazzy elements to it. Behind all the electric effects, Esperanza’s bass playing and other sections of her compositions, often sound jazzy—fusion-ish and less “traditional”, sure, but still jazzy. This is actually one of the aspects of this project that really draws me in, as some of the songs here, like “Judas” or “Elevate or Operate” contain intricate passages of notes that would sound at home on a jazz fusion record, but re-contextualized—placed in tunes that are the length of your average pop/rock song, with only one track on the album, “Funk The Fear”, being over five minutes. 

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Esperanza’s vocal talent has always drawn my attention just as much as her bass playing, and her singing here is no exception to this. In fact, the way she seems to have shifted up her vocal phrasing from the past is one of D+Evolution’s greatest strengths. She has moved very far away from the more soul- and latin-music-influenced vocal delivery that can be found in her past work. On D+Evolution, more than anything, we hear the influence of a Hejira-era Joni Mitchell. This is particularly evident in the tone with which Esperanza elongates words while singing, the strongest examples of this being on “Noble Nobles”, a track featuring a Mitchell-esque mix of acoustic and electric guitar, and on the piano driven “Earth To Heaven”, the first half of this tune containing verse structures that instantly reminded me of Joni Mitchell classics.

One of the bests tracks here that also fit that description is “Judas”, which features Esperanza singing some brilliantly crafted verses that float between a fast and more drawn out vocal delivery throughout. A similar vocal juxtaposition can be found on “One”, a standout track of this record, with the epic and heavy delivery of the hook eventually giving way to verses sung in a light and playful cadence that strongly reminds me of Minnie Riperton. Other highlights are “Unconditional Love”, a track featuring a hazy, arguably psychedelic atmosphere with an extremely catchy hook, and “Ebony & Ivory” a song where lyrically Esperanza addresses education and its relation to race and history in the United States. “Ebony & Ivory” opens with a stark and fast deadpan vocal delivery that returns between the sung verses, during which Esperanza unleashes what can only be interpreted as scathing criticism (“Ocre, ivy, brick, and leather bound books built up by heavy lock crooks with unburdened minds of bastardized Darwinian logic projected as hard evidence on backs and faces of our ancestral culprits wasted, toiling as a majority of plantated crimes”). 

D+Evolution is a success. Clocking in at 45 minutes, in a world full of bloated albums, Esperanza has given just enough so that there would be no filler. There is a lot to dig into here, musically, and even the simplest and shortest song, “Farewell Dolly”, a two-minute track with beautiful flutes where Esperanza’s bass is the center of attention, works as a great interlude-like track. Don't get me wrong—there are lowlights, but even the worst songs here are good. These are probably “Funk The Fear”, which is based around a catchy sequence of tightly played notes that a times feels a bit too structured to be funky, and the Willy Wonka cover album closer, “I Want It Now”, which has a song structure that seems a bit odd and out of place on this record. Despite this, “I Want It Now”, has a beautiful portion in the middle which leads into Esperanza giving the album a theatre-like ending over some dramatic instrumentation. The album is filled with variety and gorgeous moments like this, such as the psychedelia-laden middle portion of “Good Lava” (which is backed up with some killer drumming), the instrumental switch in “Rest In Pleasure” (check around the 2:30 mark), or those fuzzy guitars that come in during the verses of “Elevate or Operate”. Emily’s D+Evolution is a tight package that should appeal to fans of Janelle Monáe and Joni Mitchell’s more jazzy endeavors, or anyone who is looking for some well crafted, ambiguous music, with elements of jazz, rock, and folk accompanied with some stellar singing. B PLUS