Favorite Track: Freeze Tag (feat. Phoelix) Least Favorite Track: LUV U
Collaboration albums are often some of the most overlooked and under-appreciated projects in the music industry. There is nothing better than two or more gifted artists contributing their strengths and fortes into a singular project, creating something amazing not only in musicality, but passion and emotion. For example, the phenomenal album Getz/Gilberto, featuring saxophonist Stan Getz and singer/guitarist João Gilberto, became one of the most world renowned Jazz classics, and for good reason too. It helped popularize bossa-nova jazz music worldwide, producing classic standards like “Desafinado” and “Girl from Ipanema” that would be remembered in glory for years to follow. On the other side of the spectrum, Jay-Z and Kanye West’s project Watch The Throne features some of the most stunning moments in hip-hop music history. From Frank Ocean, Beyonce, Otis Redding, and Curtis Mayfield’s jaw-dropping features, to a plethora of magnificent producers, to some of the coldest samples from James Brown, Nina Simone, and Quincy Jones, and so many top-notch verses and performances from Kanye and Jay-Z, Watch The Throne never skips a beat. Furthermore, artists Terrace Martin, Robert Glasper, and Kamasi Washington have revolutionized the collusion between jazz and hip-hop, helping produce some of the greatest collaborative jazz/hip-hop-infused albums known today, with Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly being the most notable. After all their success individually, these three partnered with producer 9th Wonder to create the supergroup known as Dinner Party, and as expected, their self-titled album Dinner Party cooked up a banquet of jazz and hip-hop beats that was sure to make listeners return for seconds.
At no point does Dinner Party see one artist outshining another; or to keep the dinner analogy going, one artist is never at the “head of the table.” Instead, these four are simply presenting and enhancing ideas during a simple gathering of musically-hungry friends. They end up cooking and creating some of the most layered and interesting tracks in the jazz/hip-hop universe. The opening number “Sleepless Nights (feat. Phoelix)” personifies the primary icebreakers at a literal dinner party, as the artists slowly become more comfortable around one another. The suppressed tenor saxophone playing by Kamasi Washington paired with Glasper’s spacey piano chords and singer Phoelix’s soft hums and “ooo”’s replicate the timid atmosphere when people first get together. Even when Phoelix begins his verse or when Kamasi takes his solo at the end, the attention is not pulled from the collective sound; rather, their voices add another layer to the already blissful lullaby. The following track “Love You Bad (feat. Phoelix)” is quite contrary to the opener, having a more restrictive beat and simpler lyrics and instrumental inputs. It feels like this track largely possesses a 9th Wonder influence, as if he brought an idea for a beat to the table and Martin, Glasper, and Kamasi gave him some small, constructive additions to make it more deep and interesting. However, their brilliance in collaboration really shows on the political and intimate track “Freeze Tag (feat. Phoelix).” There are many highlights on this song, including the catchy, repetitive beat, the melody, which is sung by Phoelix and played on saxophone by Kamasi and Martin, and Glasper’s piano outro. Moreover, the collaboration stretches further than the actual musicality, as the lyrics that read “They told me put my hands up behind my head” and “They told me if I move, they gon’ shoot me dead'' underline the collective’s irritation and exasperation with the recent increase of police brutality in the United States. The grim portrayal of these disheartening lyrics can be felt in all the artists, hearing a somber feeling in every note that the instrumentalists play and even in the way 9th Wonder layered the track itself.
Expanding on the idea of equally-balanced, collaborative sound, Dinner Party shows a lot of restraint. Given each member's individual work, many listeners were expecting this album to be full of each of their respective strengths, such as Terrace Martin’s killer alto saxophone chops and Robert Glasper’s harmonic chordal complexity. Anyone with preconceived notions of how the album would sound if each member was unleashing their full potential would be utterly disappointed in how minimalist and restrained the twenty-three minute Dinner Party is. Therefore, it is important for listeners to lose all knowledge of each artist’s previous works and take it how it is. However, that isn’t to say that the restraint feels a little unoriginal at times. The tracks “Love You Bad (feat. Phoelix)” and “From My Heart and My Soul (feat. Phoelix)” are back-to-back, single lyric beats that can feel like they drag on a little too long. It kills the momentum felt after the opening appetizer “Sleepless Nights (feat. Phoelix),” feeling like a part of the meal that wasn’t seasoned properly. While this would be more of a problem if the rest of the album was instrumentally busy and dense, these two tracks aren’t any different than the others, showing the supergroups understanding of the preconceived expectations that fans would have when was released. Dinner Party’s tracks are individual servings of musical food, all coming together to make a well-balanced plate out of friendship, conversations, and life experiences.
The real mastery of this minimalistic album is its ability to create an atmosphere of joy while not ignoring the world’s problems. Balancing the dish between loving tracks like “Love You Bad (feat. Phoelix) and “LUV U'' and daunting tracks like “Sleepless Nights (feat. Phoelix)” and “Freeze Tag (feat. Phoelix)” is a very respectable thing for these artists to do. They intend to keep things real while also carefree and amiable. Phoelix’s sensitive falsetto, hymns, and hums, that nearly replicate neo-soul’s D’Angelo to a tee, is the bridge between what is hopeful and what is horrible in this world. In “From My Heart and My Soul (feat. Phoelix),” he repeats the phrase “From my heart and my soul, I give you my all,” which is an overall uplifting lyric about love that stems deep in the human body; moreover, a love that is full and honest. On the other hand, his sensitive, delicate voice can also embody a distressing tone, as he sings on the optimistic, yet melancholy “Sleepless Nights (feat. Phoelix)” how “We’ve been down, for so long/Know change been on the way, ain’t worried no more/Know we comin’.” His wistful tone accentuates the protest in his voice, signifying how the struggles of being black in America will eventually evolve into the brighter days; days where police brutality is not something to be in constant fear of. Like Phoelix’s voice, Kamasi Washington’s tenor saxophone playing is another link between the playfulness and seriousness. The “main course” track “First Responders” has an appropriate title, as the entire song sounds like a police siren, composed of glistening bell sounds, alarming, yet calming siren-like wails from Kamasi’s saxophone, and sudden, chaotic bursts of the jazziest saxophone licks heard on Dinner Party. All these stylistic choices produce a song that feels like the album's center piece; ergo, the one track that combines both a high-spirited state and a depressing, real estate.
Dinner Party was not an album meant to appease anybody’s expectations. It was not meant to showcase what these four came up with during late-nights in the studio as they grinded and played together. This album presents real conversation, real interaction, and real emotion all felt as these four sat down at a table. The trauma that Black Americans suffer was not going to be presented through hardcore avant-garde jazz or hard-hitting rap lyrics, even though those are effective tools to convey their anger and refusal to stand for it anymore. Instead, the four decided to highlight that life can still be enjoyable and fulfilling even in these dark and unprecedented times. That being said, having fun with friends and family does not mean to ignore the world’s problem, but to seek the light in the ominous, abominable cloud that is the world today.