When PW last spoke to Aloe Blacc, he was just another young brotha trying to make it in this world. The year was 2006 and the Orange County-bred performer had just released his debut album, Shine Through, on Stones Throw. And while it was critically well-received, it failed to make him the success he has become since the release of the stellar Good Things in 2010.
For one thing, he’s huge in Europe. Good Things even went gold in France. The album’s first single, “I Need a Dollar,” which some of you may know as the theme song to the HBO show How to Make It in America, has been a Top 5 favorite over there, going gold in Germany and platinum in Switzerland. You could chalk this up to Europe’s long-standing tradition of appreciating artists who perform good R&B, especially music that reminds them of old-school soul, which Things does. (Raphael Saadiq, who performed in Philly last week, has been getting a lot of European love, too.) Blacc thinks it’s simply about access.
“I wouldn’t say they appreciate it more,” says Blacc, on the phone from San Francisco. “I think it’s just different economics. It’s definitely more popular, but that’s probably because you don’t have to pay to get on radio in Europe. They play some music that they like. I think my fans in America appreciate it just as much as my fans in Europe. I just have fewer in America because it’s harder to get promotion.”
Despite their geography, people who listen to Good Things know what a, well, good thing it truly is. While Shine saw Blacc experimenting with many genres—hopping from soul to hip-hop to blues to house to even salsa—Things is straight retro-R&B. Or, as Blacc calls it, “old-school new soul.”
“I spent a few years between the albums touring and recording new music,” he explains. “And, over that time, I started to feel like the best use of my voice–and I consider myself still learning to sing and develop–is soul music. And, of course, the producers that I worked with generally make soul music. That’s the reason Good Things has this sound.”
Blacc starts Things by lamenting about financial hardships with opening tune/hit “Dollar,” then shifting into romantic issues with songs like a cover of Velvet Undergound’s “Femme Fatale” and the emotional “Loving You Is Killing Me.” The album closes by tugging at the heartstrings with “Mama Hold My Hand.” It’s simply one of the smarter, more conscious and surprisingly moving R&B albums to come along in this still-young decade.
Critics have made well-deserved comparisons of Blacc to late, legendary troubadours Sam Cooke and Curtis Mayfield, but Blacc points out he has been inspired by such lesser-known artists as ’60s soul singer Eugene McDaniels and jazz saxophonist Gary Bartz. He also cites Donny Hathaway as a major influence. “I listen to a lot of different styles of music,” he says. “When it comes to soul, I like to keep it pretty broad too, and not just the popular stuff that people know.”
Much like the socially conscious singers he has been compared with, Blacc prefers lyrical subject matter that speaks on our times. That’s certainly true of “Dollar,” which could be considered one of the best musical comments of our current economic downturn. Considering the rampant vapidity that makes up much of contemporary soul these days, that Blacc takes on such material and is successful is practically amazing. “What sells is sex and party music, so that’s pretty much what people are pushing, and what the artists are making because they know that’s what will get them signed and keep them signed. I think, for me, I’m just making music that makes me happy and that makes my audience happy.”
He also isn’t shy taking a classic R&B song and giving it a new, unprecedented spin. Last year, he and his backup band the Grand Scheme dropped a bluesy version of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” on YouTube. “It’s something I started doing years and years ago with my first band,” he says. “I gave the idea to my band. I said, ‘Look, I used to do this back in the day. Do you think we can try it?’ They thought it was cool. So, we did it.”
The song, predictably, has become a hit online, garnering close to 700,000 hits so far. “We ended up getting a phone call from Michael Jackson’s recording engineer of 20 years, Bruce Swedien,” Blacc says. “He told me that he loved the version, and thinks that if Michael had heard it, he would’ve loved it too.”
Blacc strives to be conscious in his music and career. He’s a budding philanthropist, donating his time to charities at home and around the world, using his newfound fame to encourage his fans to do the same. Just recently, he performed at Sean Penn’s Cinema for Peace dinner in Cannes. But whenever he’s back home in L.A., he spends his newfound fame talking to “young kids incarcerated for crimes they barely understand” at youth detention centers.
Blacc also collaborates with other artists. He has co-written and co-produced some upcoming work for Australian rapper Maya Jupiter. And for all of you fans of Emanon, the hip-hop group Blacc formed with DJ Exile, Blacc assures that a new album will be coming from them.
In just a few short years, good things have happened to Aloe Blacc. And Blacc has managed to shine through.
Aloe Blacc performs Thurs., June 2, 8pm. With Tutu Sweeney and the Brothers Band.
$13-$21. World Cafe Live, 3025 Walnut St. 215.222.1400. worldcafelive.com
PW's Music Issue 2014