Best known for his work in TV and musical theatre, the American polymath serves up some bops on his victory lap of a new album
Casual observers may have noticed the performer Billy Porter in shows such as Pose and American Horror Story. His musical theatre chops have earned him high praise as well, but Black Mona Lisa is his first record of original material since the late 90s and mostly features him flexing over campy disco tunes with help from Justin Tranter.
When this formula works, it’s great fun: Porter’s smooth delivery on Not Ashamed fits perfectly with the shimmying 80s drums and lush pads (“done with being stigmatised / don’t care if they criticise, no / I’m just trying to live my life / so y’all won’t leave me traumatised, no”). Baby Was A Dancer tells a tale of a rebellious, troubled but iconic spirit over string licks and grooving bass guitar, while he serves us two different pronunciations of ‘patronise’ on opening tracks Broke A Sweat and Children, all sass and empowerment.
Other highlights deeper into the tracklist include the syncopated chords and blissful lyrics of Fashion and the somewhat self-explanatory Funk Is On The One. The instrumentation is particularly effective on the latter song, a buzzing synth solo seeing its last hook through to a humorous conclusion, and indeed even on more non-descript numbers the chunky beats keep the show on the road.
Black Mona Lisa is a short record, but unfortunately it’s not without its duds. The hook of Stranger Things just about makes sense if one divorces it from the idiom, but the song’s arrangement is far too thin to sell the more soulful approach, and the less said about More To Learn’s Imagine Dragons-esque production the better. Audacity fares far better, as Porter delves into childhood trauma and feelings of inadequacy (“sometimes I fall into damaging thoughts / like I don’t deserve all the love that I got / but then I take a second to breath / I always come back to me / I always come back to the / audacity”) over swelling organ and piano chords.
Within a career such as Porter’s Black Mona Lisa feels like a victory lap, hard-won and well-deserved. One can hear him adjusting to a creative freedom that was absent at the start of his singing career, and on its best songs the album encompasses a celebratory joy that it would be downright homophobic to resist.