Since their inception in 2010, BadBadNotGood has made it known they’re rebels in a pre-designed jazz world. Three (now four) white guys in a genre dominated, and originated, by blacks, working with ambassadors of the lawless Odd Future, and sampling hip-hop beats rather than the other way around, BBNG has, essentially, bolstered the intrigue of jazz for a new generation that could’ve otherwise lived without it. Never taking themselves too seriously, whilst simultaneously working with stony-faced emcees like Ghostface Killah (on Sour Soul), these instrumentalists, much like Odd Future members at times, act trivially while making music that sounds sobering. The early days of the group, which saw BBNG and BBNG2 reimaging famous hip-hop beats from the past and present, warily contained humor (from Tyler, The Creator, Alex Sowinski, and a Lil B shoutout) despite the music showcasing the potential of three well-trained players. Now that they've matured, their latest two projects, III and now IV, have signified a process of settling down. III had an identity but lacked variation, IV struggles due to the inverse. A hodgepodge of styles that muffle the record coincides with musicians who’ve been on the brink of a breakthrough for half a decade.
The most obvious and significant change on the exterior of IV is its cover. Previously a group languishing in monochrome, IV’s cover is baby blue, with its four members sharing an intimate moment shirtless out by the pool. They’re not shrouded by shadows or hidden behind a pig’s mask; they’re exposed, bare-chested, and there for all to witness. Interestingly enough, with full credits and record material filling the rest of the space, BBNG decided to make the flipside of the CD case the cover. It all signifies a shift in direction, but once opener “And That, Too.” begins, the classic BBNG style is back on display. A creaky piano-led melody that sounds not unlike a ‘50s ballroom, the opening also works to welcome saxophonist Leland Whitty to the group with a simmering solo. He doesn’t appear on every song, but when he does, especially on tracks like “Chompy’s Paradise” or “IV”, the center of attention is immediately shifted to his squall. While he’s been peppered through the group’s discography before, his official inclusion aims to drive BBNG into a more all-encompassing ground.
Which leads to the variation found within IV. A trend that even jazz fusionists are hopping on so it seems, as with Sour Soul and a few other production credits they’ve got their name on, the act of teasing all sorts of genres without committing to one is all the rage in 2016. From Flume to Baauer, and especially including Kaytranada who’s now traded features with BBNG on each’s respective project (appearing here on the synth-infused, chain-rattling “Lavender”), the group is just another to try their talents on a handful of tasty subgenres. It’s not as extreme here, but when you have Sam Herring (of Future Islands fame) and Mick Jenkins on the same work you’re bound to stir sounds and styles. The outcome is a bit mixed. For one, the wholesome jazz session tracks, which fill half the LP, feel little more than interludes when pressed up against works with competing vocal artists, a problem the three previous LP’s did not have to worry about. And when someone other than BBNG appears the results get dicey.
Working with Jenkins before (on the excellently goofy “On The Map”), it’s no surprise the Chicago spitter appears here. “Hyssop of Love” essentially reminds people of what Sour Soul should’ve been, with an impassioned emcee riding atop continuously oscillating rhythms. On the other end of the spectrum, Herring on “Time Moves Slow” is relatively grueling with no momentum to keep it afloat. And finally, Charlotte Day Wilson appears on “In Your Eyes”, providing a smooth jazz palate similar to the vocal-led singles from Terrace Martin’s Velvet Portraits or Kamasi Washington’s The Epic. So while these guest artists help bulk up IV, they also deter from BBNG’s bright spots. For the most part, IV is a lighter album, in both sound and experimentation. The atmospheric sludge of “Flashing Lights” or the constant shape-shifting of “CS60” isn’t here, causing IV to feel smaller, less important by comparison. These are a series of tracks churned out by talented musicians content with the status quo, no longer fighting the system with jazz as their main weapon.
BBNG’s fourth LP seems to resist the urge to reinvent, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. There aren’t any top-tier tracks, just like there’s no obvious filler. Sure, the title track overstays its welcome, and “Structure No.4” largely feels like a Sour Soul outtake, but they’re not sub par tracks. And everything else, from the colorful and crunchy “Confessions Pt II”, to the haunting reverie of “Speaking Gently”, is quality work. It seems, unless a poignant shift occurs in the future, BadBadNotGood may be continually regarded as “good”, a term that applies to experts in their craft who fail to excel past their expected boundaries. BBNG2, my personal favorite by a solid margin, showed clear signs of exploration, intrigue, and youthful ambition. Now that they’re older, IV feels subdued and professional, something you would never expect to associate with the quartet. It was over four years ago when the then-trio dropped BBNG2, including in the written statement that “No one above the age of 21 was involved in the making of this album.” They prided themselves on the youth, angst, and a-nothing-to-lose mentality. Though they’re talented, as time creeps up on them, the pulse behind BadBadNotGood’s mission has begun to wear. C PLUS
Read more of Brian’s writing at his blog, Dozens of Donuts.