Over the past decade, Robert Glasper has sought to defy genre through his Black Radio album series, which blurred the lines between jazz, R&B and experimental music. The blend was an immediate hit: Following his more straightforward jazz aesthetic, Black Radio was a best-of-both-worlds project on which singers like Bilal and Erykah Badu could harmonize atop Glasper’s mix of vast electronic orchestration. It wasn’t quite jazz and it wasn’t quite R&B; that you couldn’t quite describe it made it even more enticing. Black Radio won the Grammy for Best R&B Album. Its successor, Black Radio 2, won a Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Performance — for a remake of Stevie Wonder’s “Jesus Children of America” — in 2015.
Since then, Glasper has appeared in various spaces, releasing live and studio LPs and playing an integral role on rapper Kendrick Lamar’s landmark album, To Pimp a Butterfly. He’s been able to navigate these landscapes while keeping true to his singular vision as a conduit between jazz and R&B, even as his music has moved closer to R&B alone. On his new album, Black Radio III, Glasper fully embraces the R&B moniker. Below is a conversation about how he did just that.
VMP: What was the genesis of Black Radio III?
Robert Glasper: Originally, I wasn’t going to do one. I did Part 1, which came out in 2012, then Black Radio 2, which came out in 2013. I wasn’t trying to do too many. I did those and just kind of moved on to doing other projects and stuff. But throughout the years, all my fans have been asking me about doing another Black Radio, because I think that kind of record was just fresh and new, and people just really wanted that sound again. So during the pandemic, people really started asking for it because there was a hunger for music.
Because Black Radio 2 came out eight years ago, it was eight years of people saying, “Hey, what’s up with Black Radio III? Is there going to be one? Can there be one?” I wasn’t doing anything because of the pandemic. I built a studio in the back of my house and I’m like, “You know what? Let me just try to make one. It’s going to be harder because I can’t get artists in person because of COVID. But let’s see what happens.” Some artists were able to come here in the latter part of the COVID situation. But for the meat of it, most of the artists I had to send files to and hope they get on it.
What kept you upbeat during lockdown?
I had a daughter during the pandemic, so there was that. She’s 16 months old now, so she’s literally a pandemic baby. And that, just being a father, being able to be a dad to a little girl. I have a son, he’s 13. But being able to be a father to a little girl, a new baby, is just a whole different thing. And the fact that I was there to be home every day, you know what I mean? Because normally, if we would’ve had this baby and there was no COVID, I would’ve been gone for a lot of touring and stuff. But being that COVID made everybody sit their butt down, I was able to see her grow up and see all the little milestones that I might have missed the first time around.
Does any of the anxiety related to the pandemic make its way into Black Radio III?
Well, when we did “Better Than I Imagined” with H.E.R. — that’s my first single — I made the decision to release that before the album, because that was going to be on Black Radio III. But Meshell [Ndegeocello] talked about it in a way on the song. She was just saying, “I hope you’re staying inside. Hope you’re being safe.”
I have another song on the album’s deluxe version called “All Mask, No Smile.” And it’s about not seeing smiles anymore because we’re all wearing masks. And it talks about these times we’re in, you know what I’m saying? But between those two things, an intro song, the intro poetry thing, that spoken word thing that we did with Amir Sulaiman. That was me basically speaking on the time. I find that, a lot of times, people listen to music to escape the news. We all know what’s going on. We don’t need reminders. We know. It’s on CNN, it’s on IG, it’s on Facebook, everywhere you look. A lot of the people want to listen to music to escape. So I don’t necessarily want my whole album being a reminder. I want you to listen to the album and be able to actually listen to it and feel good and feel the escape.
But at the same time, I felt like, “It’s Black Radio III, and I have to say something without beating you over the head.” So that’s why the first two things you hear, I’m addressing the elephant in the room. Then after that, I change the mood a little bit and we talk about other things. This is also art that reflects love and self love. Loving yourself through this whole thing. Because people are very depressed in this time period, so that’s why “Shine” is about self love. With this album, I try to hit on different things.
What are some of the other things you address on this one?
It’s mostly an escape. You have a song like “Everybody Love” that is a party song. It’s a house song. It makes you feel good. It’s not addressing anything. It’s just talking about love. There’s the esperanza spalding song where she’s just talking about being in your truth, speaking and standing in your truth, not letting anybody mute who you are. There’s “Heaven’s Here” with Ant Clemons. That’s just talking about straight up old school: “Hey, I love this girl and why do I need to go away when I have heaven right here?” It’s just showing this old school boy-girl shit. Same thing with “Forever.” It’s talking about relationships. It’s talking about being happy that you found love and you want to be with each other forever. Because a lot of people, especially during the pandemic, you really realized if you really wanted to be with this person or not because this tested everyone. We didn’t have the built-in space that everyone has in a regular life. People didn’t even realize the built-in space they had until they didn’t have any space at all.
The first two Black Radio albums were made as the Robert Glasper Experiment. Is there a reason why this one is a solo endeavor?
Because I don’t have that band anymore. I disbanded that band in, maybe 2017 or something like that. It was tricky putting another Robert Glasper Experiment record out, because when people look up my name, those records weren’t coming up at first. When you would type Robert Glasper in Spotify, Black Radio records wouldn’t pop up. And I missed out on a few things because people were looking for certain things from movies and shit, and people would tell them, "No, listen to Robert Glasper." And they would listen to me, but Black Radio wasn’t there. They would only hear my straight up jazz stuff really. So I learned my lesson for sure. Everything has to be under me.
But it was a different band and sound. This, Black Radio III, is different. I’m using a few different people on this in general, a few different drummers, a few different bass players. So I opened up this record a little bit more than normal.
The whole Black Radio aesthetic incorporates a lot of features. What goes into how you put certain artists on certain songs? Do you just hear the music and think, “Oh, Q-Tip would sound dope on this with esperanza spalding?”
Most of the time it’s half and half. Sometimes I know there are artists that I want to work with and I’ve talked to them already about working and they’re like, “Yes. I want to do something.” I try to come up with something musically that still fits their vibe and fits their voice. Like with the Musiq Soulchild song [“Everybody Love,”], we just did it. I was at my DJ’s house — Jahi, who co-produced it with me — and he was like, “Yo, man, you got to do a house song for your next record. You don’t do house.” I’ve never done a house song. People have remixed myself to make it house, but I’ve never done a house song. So we just did the house song.
And after we did it, I happened to be talking to Musiq in that time period anyway. A lot of times that’s just the universe like, “Oh, I’ve been talking to this person,” and certain things end up matching up. So I was like, “I can hear Musiq on this.” I sent it to him, he did his thing on it, killed it, sent it back. And then I was like, “Who sounds good on this verse? Who can make this verse feel like it needs to feel?” It’s a party song. You’re at the club snapping your fingers, making it feel good. What rapper feels like that? And then I thought of De La Soul. I should get De La on here. Pos was able to do it. De La is one of those, they’re a feel good hip-hop group.
With your previous work, I guess you can classify it as jazz, even though it had so many different genres on it. This one feels like a straight-ahead R&B record. Did you do that on purpose?
Absolutely, yep. Also because of the way I had to cut this record. I had to cut it like an R&B record. With the other two Black Radio records, the whole band was in the studio together at the same time. I was still very much in my jazz shit, but I was just stepping out into the R&B world, really. Black Radio was my first real step out into R&B on my own. So that’s why there’s still a heavy jazz influence because I was still mixing the two. I was literally coming from jazz, going into R&B. Even Black Radio 2 was a little bit more R&B than the first Black Radio.
I’m in this R&B shit now, so let me just be in it, you know? I never want every Black Radio to sound the same. The jazz mixing with R&B, I’ve done that already. My thing now is to make an R&B record; that’s where I was coming from with it.
Then, especially with artists, musicians, it’s easier to be like, “Yo, send me four different takes,” so then I can edit. I can take a piece of that, take a piece of that, take a piece of that take and make it one take. I can do what I want to do on it, and musicians can quickly do that. With artists, they’re not giving you four takes. You get one, you’re lucky you got them in the studio to begin with during this COVID time. Especially if they don’t have equipment at home, especially if they have to get up and go to a studio, and so you get one chance with an artist really. And so that’s the scary part: some things you have to fix as much as you can; some things you just can’t fix and you have to live with it. And there are some of those things that happen, and that’s just what it is. That’s what makes it special, too.
What do you mean by that?
It makes it special because you can’t necessarily change it. So that’s going to be there. It’s going to remind you, “Wow, I couldn’t change that because of COVID.” So it’s like a reminder of this time period. This time period is special in good ways and bad ways. I’m good with living with certain things that happen musically. If it happened in a very honest way, even if it could have been a better way, I’m OK with that. You could do something better, but that doesn’t mean it will hit or penetrate the soul the same way. You may do a run, you may sing a line that’s a little off, but it made you feel a certain way. Like, “Oh man, I felt that,” versus somebody singing it perfectly and you don’t feel it, you could just say, “Ooh, they could sing really good.” I’m always for the first one, I’m always like, “How did it make you feel?” And so being that it’s COVID and I can’t tell so and so to go back to the studio, just to fix this one little part, I gotta keep it or delete it.
Ultimately, what do you want people to get from Black Radio III?
Whatever they need. Whenever I put a record out, I don’t really hope for a specific thing. I just hope this record does something for you. Whatever that thing is that you need. I hope this record can fill that void for you. Because a lot of times when I’m traveling, I get to hear what a record did for them. They could tell you a story versus something I might not ever see on IG. But I know if it’s a meet and greet or I’m walking down the street, somebody might come up to me and say, “Hey man, let me let you know, this record, so and so song, my mom was sick or we gave birth to the music or I was going to kill myself and that song came on.” I’ve heard all these things. And so those things are important to me. Whatever this record can do for you, that you need at this specific time, that’s what I want it to do.
Marcus J. Moore is a New York-based music journalist who’s covered jazz, soul and hip-hop at The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, The Nation, Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, Billboard, Pitchfork and elsewhere. From 2016 to 2018, he worked as a senior editor at Bandcamp Daily, where he gave an editorial voice to rising indie musicians. His first book, The Butterfly Effect: How Kendrick Lamar Ignited the Soul of Black America, was published via Atria Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) and detailed the Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper’s rise to superstardom.