Fantastic Negrito’s Modern Take on Blues Channels Urgency on “Please Don’t Be Dead” (ALBUM REVIEW)

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Until his relatively surprising Grammy win in 2016, many of us were not familiar with Fantastic Negrito (a.k.a. Bay Area-based artist Xavier Dphrepaulezz (pronounced Deh-frep-aw-lez). Now he encores that winning album, The Last Days of Oakland, with the highly anticipated Please Don’t Be Dead, another assault on the sweeping tides of gentrification and the fears in black communities.

“I wrote this album because I fear for the life of my black son,” says Negrito. “I fear for the lives of my daughters. I am uncertain about what kind of future they will face. Will someone shoot up their school? Will they become addicted to prescription pills? Will they wind up on the street, sleeping under freeways and overpasses? Will the police murder my son? I came up with the name Please Don’t Be Dead because I felt like we’d lost of our way as a society – and I know what happens when you chase the wrong things. It’s the story of my life.”

It’s a sign of our times that we’re seeing these kinds of modern-day protest statements across many forms of black music. And, many forms of music: hip-hop, rap, R&B, blues, electronica, rock, jazz, and even spoken word are all fusing together in what has almost become a genre-agnostic slew of albums, mostly by jazz artists like Robert Glasper (R+R = NOW), Dana Murray (The Negro Manifesto), Logan Richardson (Blues People), and Christian Scott (The Emancipation Procrastination), to cite a few.  Negrito fits as easily into those kinds of records as he does into blues. He’s studied all the foundational blues from the last century and updated the sound with loops and samples of his own live instruments. He gives these blues plenty of rock flavor too. Echoes of Zeppelin, The Black Keys, and Jack White are as prevalent as those of Leadbelly or Son House. And, like the jazz artists mentioned, urban aspects of hip-hop, rap, and spoken word filter through as does R&B, especially on tracks like “Dark Windows.”

Negrito comes out aggressively on the first track, “Plastic Hamburgers.”  He sees it as a rallying cry for the major issues like addiction, guns, censorship, and overconsumption that need to be confronted directly. As you glean titles like “A Letter to Fear,” Transgender Biscuits,” and “The Suit That Won’t Come Off,” and “Bullshit Anthem,” it’s clear that Negrito is passionate. He’s not at all interested in mincing words. There’s a stated purpose behind songs like “The Duffler.” It’s a story about someone having something and not appreciating it until it’s gone when it’s too late.  He feels that America is in that space right now. “A Cold November Street” sets itself apart from the other tracks with its gospel fused with electronica approach. Replete with background singers it serves as a modern-day hymn.

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