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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.

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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.

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.

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Kev Choice’s Revolutionary Record Release Party

Live review/ Kev Choice @ Yoshis, February 5, 2015.

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“Can we have five more minutes? We sold out the place tonight,” Oakland’s own Kev Choice pleaded to Yoshis management. It was a few ticks of the clock past 9:45pm. For the past hour and forty-five minutes, Choice and his ridiculously-talented band had been playing selections from the pianist/composer/producer/emcee’s new album, Love and Revolution – the first public performance of this material (available for online purchase Feburary 10 at Choice’s Bandcamp site). Alongide Choice’s top-notch backing band, a succession of guest artists lent an all-star feel to the proceedings, making the show seem as eventful as, well, an event.

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Jennifer Johns, Antique, Andrew Levin

All night, there had been a significant procession of co-signers to Choice’s aesthetic, beginning with young people’s vocal chorus Young Oakland, continuing with frequent co-collaborators Viveca Hawkins and Jennifer Johns, then extending through cameo spots by HNRL, Lockmith, Jeff Turner, Chris Turner, Antique Soul, Zumbi Zoom, and, finally, Jaguar Wright.

It had all gone by rather quickly. The momentum was still building, but the allotted performance time had run out. For a minute, there was a sense of, who’s gonna come out next?  If the show were to continue, would the stage door conjure yet another amazing vocal talent?

 

Viveca Hawkins, 1-O.A.K., Trackademicks

Viveca Hawkins, 1-O.A.K., Trackademicks

A Kev Choice concert is like getting two shows for the price of one. Not only do you get a conscious hip-hop throwdown, but you also get a memorable jazz-funk-soul vaccination.  Choice handles the dual roles of pianist and emcee with ridiculous amounts of skill at each, and his stage presence has grown over the years, honed by international touring experience. The special guests garnered most of the attention, but Choice’s backing band was tighter than a vise and funkier than a mosquito’s tweeter. Guitarist Andrew Levin and bassist Uriah Duffy shone in particular—easily handling the rapid mood swings of Choice’s material, which incorporated classical orchestration, jazz-fusion progressions, funky hip-hop breakdowns, and soulful R&B vocal stylings–sometimes on the same song. There was a string and a horn section, as well. Choice had clearly pulled out all the stops.

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Jeff Turner, Zumbi Zoom, Locksmith, Chris Turner

It’s a bit of a gamble to play a live show featuring all-new material which has never been publicly-performed before, but that’s just what Choice did. The enthusiastic, standing-room only, crowd embraced the new songs warmly, so the gamble paid off. The album’s title ran like an undercurrent through the music, connecting Love and Revolution‘s songs thematically, to the point where it almost seemed like a concept album. The opening triad – beginning with the optimistic, romantic “Feel the Love,” which segued into the hard-hitting sociopolitical commentary “Gone Too Far,” which in turn became the jazz-laden instrumental “Oscar’s Revenge” – felt like a musically-cohesive movement in three parts. Johns  joined Hawkins for “So High,” whose lyrics traced a continuum “from the black Egyptians to the Black Panthers” before presenting the couplet “love is coming for me/ who can stand against me?”

“Compatible”— a piano-driven instrumental composition – was perfectly followed by “My Cause,” a song about commitment/monogamy, delivered with a broken-beat rhythm and tribal-sounding drums, which contains the hook, “I’ll ride for you like you was my cause.” kev choice love and revolution rr 058

Oakulture’s notes scribbled during this time read, “music theory gives Kev an advantage” – a nod to the composing, arranging, technical finesse and musicianship which goes into his songs – something you might expect from a jazz player, but considerably rare within the hip-hop spectrum. Even hip-hop’s most celebrated producers weren’t technically composers, with the notable exception of RZA (in his later years).

“Movement Music”—inspired by Johns’ activism, Choice related – was next, also featuring Antique on vocals. Introducing the song, Choice declared, “This is the home of the movement. Oakland is where they started the movement,” he reminded the crowd.  The next few minutes of the set essentially transformed the respectable, upscale environs of Yoshis into an activist staging ground, as the two powerful soul voices of Johns and Antique joined Choice in urging for positive social change. “Can’t have revolution without evolution,” Antique sang.

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Jennifer Johns, Andrew Levin, Antique, Kev Choice

Oakulture’s field notes say: “why listen to anything else? Comparing Choice and what he brings to the musical/lyrical equation with say, commercial urban radio, is like comparing a Pharaoh to a crackhead.”

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Zumbi Zoom, Locksmith, Chris Turner, Kev Choice

The vibe only got thicker from that point on, as the HNRL crew (vocalist 1-O.A.K and emcee Trackademics) were next to grace the stage, for the forward-thinking “Another World,” a track which pushes the envelope of progressivity.  A dapper 1-O.A.K. sang the song’s resonant hook: “When it all sets on fire/ it brings truth to the light.”

Guest vocalist Chris Turner took the show into rarified air with a falsetto-driven version of “People Make the World Go Round,” which the Yoshi’s crowd lapped up like hot butter. Turner remained on stage while even more guest emcees – Locksmith, Jeff Turner, and Zumbi Zoom – joined in on “Noose,” another reflection of what it means to be a black man in America. The illmatic posse cut raised the thermostat accordingly with sick rhyme flows. The expert pacing continued with “Meet Me at the March,” an ode to activist rallies which nicely continued the album’s theme.

Jaguar Wright

Jaguar Wright

Time was almost running out, yet it seemed to stand still as Philly neo-soul diva Jaguar Wright took the stage and showed off some impressive vocal chops. Following her star turn, Choice made his aforementioned plea to extend the time, so he could play “Daddy,” a song about fatherhood written for his 12 year-old daughter, Anya, dedicated to her and all the fathers in attendance. The song spoke to hip-hop’s evolving intergenerationality, as well as Choice’s own maturity.

Musically, not a lot of people are touching Kev Choice right now; his potential seems limitless. Lyrically as well, his content  and delivery puts him far out in front of most of the rap pack. Some of Choice’s flows are downright un-be-lievable, content-wise, and he switched off between frontman and bandleader roles effortlessly.

While the evening certainly showcased Choice’s talents, it also shone an equally-bright light on his collaborators. In some ways, Choice’s live band seemed reminiscent of the great Gil Scott-Heron-Brian Jackson bands of the 70s, who effortlessly mixed jazz, funk, soul, poetry and R&B into an infectious musical stew – the perfect complement to Scot-Heron’s sometimes-sung, sometimes-rapped, vocals.

kev choice love and revolution rr 272But Choice is far from retro in his approach. Though at times his sound is reminiscent of mid-70s jazz fusion, he ups the ante by incorporating hip-hop rhymes and prominently featuring female vocalists, as well as classical music-inspired melodies. Watching the show, you felt very much like you were witnessing a statement performance which spoke to the collective talent level of Oakland’s urban artist community.

All in all, it was one of the most engaging shows Oakulture has ever seen at Yoshis, one which was anything but by-the-numbers smooth jazz (chair seating notwithstanding). The legacy of community activism and the current vibe in the streets converged with incredible musicianship, conscious lyricism, and a slew of killer vocal performances to make the event one which will long be remembered in The Town.