August Greene is a supergroup worth getting excited about. On the marquee is the veteran rapper-songwriter Common, Jazz/Hip-Hop crossover pianist Robert Glasper, and longtime Common and J-Dilla collaborator, drummer Karriem Riggins. There are far too few groups like this in Hip Hop and seeing seasoned artists create something a new one is very encouraging as the genre ages and finds its footing as an established part of American culture.
Although this group is new, the frontmen have worked together in several combinations in the past, most recently on Common’s last album Black America Again, where Riggins took the reins as the primary producer, with some of Glasper’s touches sprinkled throughout. While that project was distinctly Hip-Hop, August Greene situates itself in the ethereal world where Hip-Hop, Jazz and R&B meet. Where the edges are a little softer and the the musicians occupy the spotlight as much as than the emcee, making the production layered, lively and engaging.
Karriem Riggins and Robert Glasper, the architects of the album’s music, do a good job of keeping things from becoming monotonous. There is a flow from “Meditation” to the callback to its lyrics on “Piano Interlude” with the tempo and energy changing from track to track inbetween and throughout. Some songs are driven by the lyrics and performance of Common and the featured singers, while others have extended instrumental sections where the musicians can shine. It is easy for supergroups to try to fit in too much on each track, but this project shows the discipline of Riggings and Glasper to know when to add and when to take away.
Equally important as the musicianship are the messages of empowerment, positivity, and unity that add weight to an album with an already commanding presence. The ideals that the album celebrates are met with a realism, encouraging self reflection when battling personal imperfections and urging the listener to have the faith and optimism that with practice, they can experience growth within themselves and their communities.
That message is most potent on the song “Optimistic”, which is a cover of a song released in 1991 by the gospel group Sounds of Blackness. The original version used a looped breakbeat as the backbone of the track, where this new version features rich keys and fluid drumming and a feature performance from Brandy that blows me away. The sequencing of this song followed by the closing musical odyssey “Swisha Suite” (best song title of 2018) shows that this supergroup really knows how to end an album and leave a lasting impression.
Unfortunately, there is one thing this about this album that keeps most of it out of rotation for me. I cannot stand the contributions made by Samora Pinderhughes, who ends up singing the majority of the hooks with a vocal tone and delivery style that sounds more like a demo take or a half-hearted amateur appearance than the commanding and catchy element that this album needs from him. Surrounded by masters of their craft, Pinderhughes just sounds out of his league. When everything else is done right on this album, I cannot understand why his takes made the final cut when the quality control everywhere else is so consistent. Granted, I do like what he brings to the table on “Fly Away”, where his layered harmonies add an interesting texture to the song, but when his singing is exposed and unaccompanied it just feels thin and underdeveloped.
This album is so close to being an album of the year contender and the changes that could be made seems so obvious. If you watch the groups’ NPR Tiny Desk performance, they enhance their performance by foregrounding women, building each song around a feature performance from female singers and rappers. It’s a shame that they didn’t do the same on the album. I can only imagine how incredible this project could have been with a few more songs at the same caliber as “Optimistic” and fewer lackluster hooks.