Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance

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Kev Choice: Love and Revolution (album review)

Kev Choice

Revolutionary: Kev Choice

Everyone’s talking about how K.Dot (Kendrick Lamar, for the unhip) just reinvented the hip-hop wheel with his new album, which drops the same day (today) as Kev Choice’s latest, Love and Revolution. It says here, however, that an equal amount of praise is due to the Oakland pianist/bandleader/composer/emcee, whose third full-length album is destined to be a classic, although it’s doubtful Choice will be trending on FB or sell platinum units.

Choice comes through with a solid effort which is topical, relevant, conscious, highly musical, adventurous, fearless, groovy, intelligent, mature and community-oriented (maybe even family-friendly, if your family enjoys shutting down 580 as much as BBQing at the Lake). While K.Dot can afford to enlist the services of pianist Robert Glasper, it’s worth mentioning Choice can play any note on the piano Glasper can play. No, there’s no gimmicky dialogue with a dead rapper to get tongues wagging, but Choice is far from a lyrical slouch. His musical skills were already beyond reproach—he holds a masters degree in jazz, is a bonafied classical pianist, and digs deep into funk and R&B—but it took him awhile to hone his rapping technique to perfection.

On earlier efforts, like the single “Definition of a Star,” Choice seemed to be aiming for KMEL airplay which never came, while holding back his musical gifts. But last year’s excellent Oakland Rivera broke that mold with forward-thinking tracks which raised the bar for hip-hop musicianship. Oakland Rivera also hinted at the lyrical butterfly Choice was cocooning into, particularly on the Gil Scott Heron-esque “Crazy Illusion,” which eschewed me-first braggadocio for poignant sociopolitical observations on gentrification and the changing nature of Oakland, and the hooky yet substantive “That Life” (recently treated to a club-melting remix by DJ D-Sharp).

With Love and Revolution, Choice doubles down on the conscious content, using today’s murky racial politics and growing community response to perceived systemic injustice as inspirational fodder for some ridiculous lyrical fusillades, which sounded unbelievable a couple of months back, when he debuted the album one memorable night at Yoshis. He might not be as quotable as Kendrick, but he’s not all that far behind.

It’s a testament to how well Choice has developed its themes that Love and Revolution feels like a concept album at times. Instead of tracks just slapped together willy-nilly, we get an honest-to-God song cycle, something which has been increasingly rare since the advent of the compact disc.

Choice’s “Revolution” refers to flashpoints like Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin, which have resonated nationwide, resulting in DOJ investigations and counter-resistant viral movements like #BlackLivesMatter. However resonant the response to Ferguson, the fire this time really began with Oscar Grant five years ago. Given that context, it’s only natural for Choice to address those topics, in an extremely Oakland kind of way. How Oakland is the album? There are instrumentals named “Oscar’s Revenge” and “Blues for (Alan) Blueford.”  Most of Choice’s supporting cast is local; there are zero throwaway cameo tracks featuring big-name artists for the sake of featuring big-name artists. But rather than a minus, that becomes a plus, allowing Choice to concentrate on substance, not superficiality. The result is a sense of cohesiveness and collaboration missing from many of today’s celebrity-studded albums – Love and Revolution is perhaps best described as a family affair which furthers Choice’s individual musical vision.

Jennifer Johns, Antique, and Kev Choice

Movement Music: Jennifer Johns, Antique, and Kev Choice

Content-wise, Love and Revolution is arguably a “street” album, albeit an extremely jazzy, soulful and progressive one which imparts its messages without being overly ghetto  — one hopes it will be played in the ‘hood as well as at non-profit organizing rallies. But while protests, marches and rallies have informed Love and Revolution’s content, the album’s righteous indignation—anger might be too strong a word for it—is well-tempered by a drive for innovation, creative juice-tapping, and a need to create beauty, even in an uncertain, unfair world. Choice is mature enough to realize that revolutionary militancy must be balanced by passionate love, and smart enough to figure out the two together are unstoppable.

It’s a testament to how well Choice has developed its themes that Love and Revolution feels like a concept album at times. Instead of tracks just slapped together willy-nilly, we get an honest-to-God song cycle, something which has been increasingly rare since the advent of the compact disc. Well-placed instrumental interludes help to pace the album without bogging it down, giving the vocal-heavy tracks “Room to Breathe” – to paraphrase the title of one of the interludes.

kev choice love and revolution rr 058

The album opener, “Feel the Love” (featuring Viveca Hawkins) bookends the track it segues into, “Gone Too Far,” setting up the love/revolution dichotomy which underscores the remainder of the disc. The combination of Choice and Hawkins is a potent one; a simple piano riff anchors the song, which swerves between soaring neo-soul expressions, down-to earth lines (“As long as justice escapes us, we live for the struggle/we keep holding on”), and a near-symphonic arrangement complete with crashing cymbals. Sampled TV news soundbites introduce an element of tense realism on “Gone Too Far,” which finds Choice commenting on police brutality and community protests “from Oakland to Ferguson, New York to Palestine” over a guitar-driven melody. “Fist up, hands up, stand up,” Choice repeats, adding, “we ain’t gon’ take it no more.”

Choice’s outrage is channeled into a jazz-fusion eulogy on the aforementioned “Oscar’s Revenge,” which sandwiches the energy-lifting “So High” (featuring Netta Brielle) around another instrumental, “Compatible,” which in turn segues into the single “My Cause” – whose lyrics fuse the love/revolution dichotomy into a single purpose (“ride for you like you was my cause”).

Lyric heads get treated to a showcase of verbal dexterity on “Noose”, which continues the social commentary and includes a blistering verse by Locksmith, as well as the super-duper soul vocals of C Holiday. A sampled monologue from the sci-fi classic “The Day the Earth Stood Still” goes on a bit too long – one of Choice’s few missteps – before giving way to “Another World,” which features HNRL’s Trackademicks and 1-O.A.K. (who supplies the mind-elevating hook, “when it all sets on fire/ for tonight brings truth to the light”).


1-O.A.K. brings truth to the light

Perhaps the album’s best song, though, is “Movement Music,” another posse cut which showcases some of Oakland’s finest talents: Jennifer Johns, Ryan Nicole, Antique, K.E.V., and Aisha Fukushima. The uptempo pace goes well with the song’s lyrical themes of rhythmic uprising. Each guest slays when it’s their turn, while Choice takes a swipe at commercial radio: “they say we’re not hot in the streets/ but every time I’m there, you are not in the streets.”  Ouch. An exclamation point is added on the following track, “Young Oakland Interlude,” which literally features the voices of the next generation, chanting “jobs, peace and justice, if we want the dream, it’s up to us.”

After another instrumental, “Meet Me At The March,” Choice returns with “Daddy,” a heartfelt dedication to his daughter, Anya, which solidifies the “love” theme. The album closes with the melancholy solo piano track “Ballad for Blueford,” whose sad notes spotlight Choice’s composing skills.

When it’s all said and done, Love and Revolution accomplishes what every album’s objective should be: to be a soundtrack for our lives. Undoubtedly contemporary, there’s nothing especially trendy or faddish on the entire disc, which means it will remain relevant, as long as its themes continue to resonate. And while this album loudly screams “Oakland,” it’s worldly, sophisticated and nuanced enough to escape the trap of regional limitations – providing one has a chance to hear it.

Love and Revolution is available for digital download here.


OMF Report-back: In Its 2nd Year, the Oakland Music Festival Gets It Mostly Right

Live review: Oakland Music Festival, Sept. 27, Uptown Oakland

The view from Era's balcony

The view from Era’s balcony

Imagine a music festival which takes place right in the heart of Oakland’s Uptown area which activates multiple venues, incorporates local businesses, and features a diverse array of both local and national talent. Sounds good, right? Well, that’s just what the Oakland Music Festival, or OMF, turned out to be. Now in its second year, the sophomore edition of OMF was a huge improvement over the inaugural effort in just about every way: the location, centered around 21st St., was more fitting; the stage itself was more impressive, right down to the massive speakers which emanated earthquake levels of bass vibrations; the lineup had a nice mix of stylistic genres, from indie rock to hip-hop to EDM to R&B/soul to Latin music, in addition to featuring some of the tightest local DJs around. And best of all, it didn’t rain this year.

Namorados Da Lua

Namorados Da Lua

Undertaking something like OMF is an ambitious project, to say the least. The brainchild of Era/Tamarindo/Pop-Up Hood impresario Alfonso Dominguez, OMF wanted to be a must-see festival, and one which further established Oakland as a cultural destination. He mostly succeeded; although there are still a few kinks to be worked out, OMF generated enough momentum to make it an event which could conceivably be exciting and entertaining for years to come. Sponsors included local companies Oaklandish, Pandora, and Ex’pression College, which seemed sensible and quite appropriate. There were four music staging areas, all located between 21st St. and Grand Ave., as well as an offsite venue, the Legionnaire, which hosted a hip-hop showcase. And OMF even had its own downloadable app .

Mara Hruby, right before her set

Mara Hruby, right before her set

It took a little while for the crowd to arrive, which meant that the early performances on the main “Town Stage” were rather lightly-attended. That didn’t faze indie rockers Part Time, who delivered a jaunty set highlighted by a cover of the Pretenders’ “Back on the Chain Gang,” or veteran power-pop act the Lovemakers, who mixed 80s New Wave influences with sexual exhibitionist tendencies – which makes them a fun band to see live. DJs Fuze and D-Sharp both rocked their sets, and by the time Jesse Boykins III took the stage, the crowd was fairly thick, and growing by the minute. Boykins won the crowd over with his alternative R&B stylings, five-octave range, and infectious smile, while up-and-coming female vocalist SZA showed why she’s an artist to watch. By the time headliner Dom Kennedy closed out the main stage performances, the crowd was at elbow room capacity. Unfortunately, Oakulture had to leave before Kennedy’s performance, but the word of mouth is that he rocked it.

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Things were a bit more chaotic at the “Hella Tight” stage, inside Era. The schedule was pushed back by almost two hours at one point, which led to some confusion, especially for people who were trying to move between the festival’s multiple stages to catch specific artists. And though Era is a beautiful space and one of Oakland’s most aesthetically-pleasing nightclub venues, it felt straight-up weird to be inside a dark room during daylight hours (ditto with the “High Sidin’” stage, located inside Club 21). Besides being dimly-lit, the stage at Era is super tiny, and with the venue at capacity, it was a bit difficult to see the live acts playing on it. Highlights included the sets by Latin fusionistas Namorados de Lua, future-soul diva Zakiya Harris and Elephantine, and retro-soulstress Mara Hruby.

Zakiya Harris

Zakiya Harris

Which brings us to the main criticism of OMF: to Oakulture, it made very little sense to have non-local groups featured at prime time on the main stage, while some of the most talented local artists were shoehorned into a stage the size of a small closet. Simply put, a music festival based around branding Oakland as a destination doesn’t really need to have any out-of-town artists, does it?

Another thing which didn’t completely work out was the hip-hop showcase at Legionnaire Saloon. Though the idea of having a free event complementing a paid ticketed festival is a good one in theory, in practice it meant that some of the most-deserving local talent—the bill included female emcees par excellence Dom Jones and Ryan Nicole (performing with Nu Dekades) —was ghettoized and segregated from the majority of attendees. It’s just not realistic to expect folks to go back and forth from the central  festival grounds to an offsite location, especially since doing so means wading through dense crowds and crossing a major intersection. And Oakland’s hip-hop scene is one of the most-celebrated in the nation, so why not make it a bigger part of the proceedings?



Overall, though, those gripes were relatively minor ones in the larger scheme of things. There were plenty of things to like, maybe even love, about OMF: the smoking patio balcony at Club 21, for example, was a people-watchers’ dream. And the close proximity of so many eateries—some even located inside the staging area—meant there were numerous and serendipitous food options.  All in all, OMF may need a little further refinement in key areas, but this year’s festival has to be considered a success. There’s definitely room to improve and make the experience even better, yet for a festival in only its second year, OMF appears to be well on its way to becoming a much-anticipated annual event.