Raleigh NC’s Jamil Rashad – recording under the moniker Boulevards – likes funk. A lot. So much so that his Bandcamp calls him “the embodiment of funk”. It’s not an entirely unfair claim, and it’s one that’s heavily foregrounded on his debut record Groove!, though there are moments where he feels more like an avatar or facsimile than the beating heart and enduring soul of a scene.
Rashad isn’t shy when it comes to unveiling his influences, almost to a fault, and the album is at times a mannequin these uncut fabrics and vintage clothes are haphazardly draped across rather than a bold reinvention of the genre. There’s a commendability to the level of funk, sure – if it’s an imitation, it isn’t poor – though the invocations can be a little on-the-nose, lacking the modern voice someone like Dev Hynes lends to similar tried and tested sounds. Rashad should carve his own path and seems to have the tools, but where Hynes’ work shines when his scrapes and bruises are allowed to glisten under streetlights in the small hours, Groove! has its feet firmly planted in the party and won’t leave, so there’s little revealed of the man beneath the iconography, no beating human heart under the mask.
There are some genuine standouts though, and single Got To Go is an irrepressible but slept-on hit of funk that manages to fully flesh itself out in its brisk two minutes, a dazzling show of canny precision that hints at Rashad’s capabilities. That closely calculated songwriting could come off sterile or stale, though the production consistently allows a wealth of earworms to pop into the foreground, and one of the laudable features of Groove! is its editor’s heavy hand: many tracks fall under 3:30, some under 2:30. That’s not to damn with faint praise or suggest these songs need to be nipped in the bud, but rather to highlight Rashad’s recognition of a potent quick hit. This is radio-ready and vocalist-focused; for all the Prince comparisons and the odd guitar solo, Groove! never allows its instrumentals the kind of wild runs or purple passages one might expect, so the album is punchy rather than expansive. It sticks to its name almost to a fault, a party rather than an odyssey, but in a year of increasingly lengthy and worthy albums that jolt of something fun and snappy can be refreshing.
And for all its posturing, beneath Groove!’s thick veneer is a playfulness that’s welcome. Cold Call takes Grandmaster Flash’s seminal The Message and recreates it as a late night phone come-on complete with a brilliantly mundane spoken word bridge (“how was your day?”, “you say you went to the park?”). It’s difficult to tell how firmly Rashad’s tongue is planted in his cheek, and the fervent dedication to funk walks the path towards post-parody at times, but there’s no lofty earnestness to make that too awkward. The video for Got To Go is a great example: Rashad goes record shopping for Purple Rain and wears a lot of shirts and turtlenecks tucked into acid wash jeans, a swishy walking trope overspilling with smooth moves. Whether it’s sly, knowing deconstruction or genuine starry-eyed indulgence is a tough call, but it’s hard to hate.
There’s no doubting Rashad’s talents as a vocalist and songwriter, and he certainly understands the genre, but he’s yet to inhabit it as fully or as critically as he surely could, which means Groove! can feel like a game of dress-up. It’s a purer take on something that has been incorporated into many a summer jam, and a serviceable debut that will likely hold up as a fun party record if it pops up on shuffle, but there’s a hollowness that stops it igniting that sumptuous spark there are glimpses of and which will hopefully be nurtured. For now, purists, tourists and nostalgists will find it easy to get into the groove, though others may be more won over when Rashad matches this album’s swagger with the confidence to take the mask off.