Lenny Kravitz: Black And White America

Kravitz returns with a fourteen song collection.

Iann Robinsonby Iann Robinson

Lenny Kravitz’s doesn’t have albums, he has hit singles. As strong as his songs can be, he’s never been known as an album artist. Mostly because his older albums are usually peppered with filler and never come across as being more than a collection of songs. Enter Black And White America, Kravitz’s newest release and first on Roadrunner/Atlantic Records. This is a concept exercise with themes of love and peace, and the first in Kravitz’s career that focuses on the entire album. Don’t get me wrong, there are singles here, but nothing that stands apart from the other tunes. Black And White America finds a more mature Lenny Kravitz reflecting on the state of the world today.

Some say that this album is a labor of love harkening back to the mid-nineties and I can see that. The songs are less pop oriented than Kravitz’s standard fare, taking their cues from the early work of Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Gil Scott Heron and even John Lennon. Funk slams out of the speakers for the opening title track. This song kicks with a funktified bass line that can’t be denied and drums that are simply badass. When the keys and strings come in you can feel the elevated work going on. Kravitz wants this to be his artistic statement to the world and the title track is easily his own entry into Steve Wonder’s “Living For The City” territory.

Next Kravitz’s ups the anti by taking a seventies rock stance and putting it with some serious Ike Turner style funk on the track “Come Get It”. The same guitar focused, but bass driven style that made Turner’s “Soul Of A Black Man” such a classic is oozing all over “Come And Get It”. “Liquid Jesus” is a smooth soul offering, mellow and more about mood than drive. You also have to dig Kravitz’s voice on the “Liquid Jesus” and how it drips all over the sex-soul he’s putting out there. “Rock Star City Life” is more in line with Kravitz earlier work. A driving rock riff combined with an understanding of what makes a pop single work on radio. It may not be the deepest song on the album, but it’s undeniably catchy.

“Boongie Drop”, featuring Jay-Z and DJ Military, is a real miss-step for what Kravitz is trying to accomplish. It feels forced, as if Kravitz wanted to make sure he showed his love of hip-hop and was quick to scrape together a tune that he could sing over but Jay-Z could rhyme with as well.  On the flipside, “I Can’t Be Without You” is a real surprise and switch for Kravitz. There’s nothing rock or soul or funk happening in the song, but something akin to a new wave eighties feel. I could just as easily hear the Thompson Twins singing “I Can’t Be Without You” as Kravitz. What’s so engaging is that it never takes you out of soul/funk parade, it just feels like a nice palette cleaner.

In the latter half of the album Kravitz lets his John Lennon shine through. “Faith Of A Child” and “Dream” are both piano heavy ballads about finding peace and existing in a world driven by love not greed and hate. Even the album closer, “Push” is a great tune, a mid-tempo anthem about pushing through the negative and returning home to discover what’s really important. It’s an obvious self-referential tune from an artist who has reached a crossroads in his musical life. At forty-seven Kravitz is entering an arena where being the good looking guy with cool outfits won’t sustain him. In other words, he needed to make Black And White America in order to grow beyond his image and continue being a creative force in the world.

There are some problems with Black And White America. At fourteen songs the album feels slightly too long, especially when songs like “Boongie Drop”, “Looking Back On Love” and “Life Ain’t Never Been Better Than It Is Now” could have been eliminated and not missed. Lyrics have never been Kravitz’s strong point and that doesn’t change. At first his naïve look at overcoming global issues is charming but, by album’s end, his pat answers and semi-slogans become irritating. It’s a lot like the rich and popular kid in school wearing a Che shirt and regurgitating easy slogans as mantra. Some of the lyrical work here is cool, but at times it feels like maybe Kravitz didn’t want to step too far over the political line.

Personally I would have enjoyed less production. The music on Black And White America is so rich with dynamics and themes that I wanted the production to be grittier, more on the level of the seventies soul, funk and rock work that inspired Kravitz. Nothing here ruins the album, it just makes it sound a little too polished, which I think takes away from what’s happening musically. Problems aside, Black And White America is the first full album by Lenny Kravitz that I can say I enjoy from end to end. It’s a declaration from Kravitz that he’s more than people give him credit for, but not above it. He may still jam out to “Are You Gonna Go My Way” but from now on we can expect albums from the once unstoppable singles machine.