Favorite Track: "BOY HOOD" Least Favorite Track: "WATCHUTALKINBOUT"
As one of the most famous pianists in music today, Jon Batiste has proven time and time again how versatile of a musician he is. From creating the jazzy and mystical soundtrack to Pixar’s Oscar-nominated Soul to releasing the meditative duo album with Cory Wong, it is clear that Batiste is an ambitious and tireless musician, exceeding expectations with every new release. In the heat of summer of 2020, as protests were heard across the world following George Floyd’s murder, Jon Batiste led a civil rights marching band through the streets in New York, playing revolutionary songs and establishing a sense of community in a time of turmoil and oppression. Three months into 2021, Batiste has continued to embrace that sense of community as a form of protest. His newest album WE ARE blends the elements of jazz, soul, hip hop, pop, and rap together to ultimately reclaim music as a way to rebuild communities in the face of evil.
One of the best aspects of WE ARE is its spirit. Right from the opening self-titled track, Jon Batiste places focus on restoring spirit in his community, demonstrated by the featured artists who include his father, his grandfather, and his high school marching band. “We are, we are, we are, we are the chosen ones” is a lyric that reinforces people’s ability to change, “we” implying community and “chosen ones” implying these people’s duty to fight for what is right. It is an effective opener in highlighting the main thematic material for the rest of the album, and what follows is twelve more tracks that accentuate joy, good spirits, and togetherness. The track “I NEED YOU” has a ‘40’s/’50’s era New Orleans swing feel, utilizing some excellent stride piano, a tight walking bassline, and some rhythmic clapping. The pre-chorus reads “In this world with a lot of problems, all we need is a little loving,” which again shows his goal of spreading joy, almost as if he is seeking to connect all people through the unity that song and dance brings. “FREEDOM” is reminiscent of a feel-good John Legend or Pharell Williams song; groovy soul music that oozes into your ears and infects your entire body. Batiste sings “When I move my body just like this, I don’t know why but I feel like freedom” to which a chorus line responds with a grandiose, harmonized “Freedom.” The second-to-last track “SING” has that similar effect that “I NEED YOU” and “FREEDOM” have. As one of the more passionate and sensitive moments on WE ARE, Batiste reminisces on moments where he feels down and feels like giving up, and how singing loudly helped him cope with those emotions. Moreover, “SING” is a nod to his arranging, as he uses multiple vocalists to sing some rhythmic “ooh’s” to portray his ambition of getting communities to rejoice through singing.
Along with thematic material, WE ARE has some very interesting instrumental moments. The track “BOY HOOD” is a great example, which features trombonist Trombone Shorty and gospel pianist PJ Morton. From an arranging standpoint, the track begins with some loose noodling from Shorty before diving into a generic trap beat for Jon Batiste to rap over, which is a whole new style for him to undertake. The post-chorus section has Batiste and Morton duo a catchy phrase that reads “You can still see me ballin’/From New York down to New Orleans.” After sitting on the trap beat for what seems like way too long, a voice whispers “Go Ahead PJ,” where PJ Morton transcends us into a grand piano and harmony filled bridge, where later, Trombone Shorty croons with his trombone over some relatively open and dense piano voicings. “MOVEMENT 11’” is another impressive instrumental moment, as Jon Batiste plays some insane solo jazz piano, occasionally supported by some beautiful strings. Even on a track with no lyrics on an album that is meant to portray community and good-spirits, Batiste bleeds soul and love into the bodies of those who need it most, which is part of his charm as a modern pianist. “CRY” contains a crispy drum groove, a powerful, grounding bassline, and some silky smooth harmonies on the chorus. In terms of vocals, this is Batiste’s best performance across the album, as he effortlessly switches between his natural voice and his falsetto. It also features an incredibly soulful guitar solo before Batiste admits that his tears are for “the struggle of the immigrants” and “the loss of the innocent.”
As uplifting as WE ARE is, there are moments where it is ironically weak. The track “WHATCHUTALKINBOUT” sees Jon Batiste dipping his toe into the rap game for the first time, but sadly, it falls short. His rapping is nowhere near technically perfect, which he even admits to in the middle of the rap, saying “I never been jailed, I never been popped/I never will have the message of Pac,” a direct reference to the late Tupac Shakur and his influence through his lyricism. This disappointment with his rapping is also felt in the first part of “BOY HOOD” and at the end of “I NEED YOU,” seeming way too casual for an album meant to uplift and fix a broken community. WE ARE can also feel pretty stagnant when listened to in one continuous play through, and while part of that is at fault of thematic material, as it’s difficult to continue pressing one idea continuously without sounding repetitive, part of it is the inability of Jon Batiste to make tracks that are sonically different from the previous track, a weakness shown heavily in the back half of the album. Similarly, there is such a thing as combining too many styles and ideas. For example, the pop and rap influences can be seen as overcompensating and busy, which probably comes from Jon Batiste’s mission in trying to universally appeal to all listeners, when he really could have made this out for the people in his community.
While WE ARE is at times tiresome and complicated, its mission to inspire a sense of community in the hearts of those listening is completed with uplifting and insanely well-arranged tracks. As expected, Jon Batiste has proven again that he is a gifted musician with a knowledgeable ear on what society needs through music. At only 34 years old, his career in music at this point is up in the air on what direction it will take next, but we can only wait with hungry ears and open minds for something that will again shock our world.