Lenny Kravitz used to be the coolest dude in America. In the late ’90s, he got everyone into cutting the waistbands off their jeans, and he made it widely acceptable for guys to get nose rings. Between 1999 and 2002, he could do no wrong, winning the Grammy award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance four years in a row. But, what is he up to these days? The man has not aged a day since his debut in 1989; he’s still working as hard as ever, and it shows.
Black And White America – Kravitz’s ninth studio album – finds him doing the same things that made him such an undeniable force in his first decade making music. Here, he mixes classic rock, funk, and synth-heavy alternative rock sounds, playing many of the instruments himself, and belting out easy (but occasionally poignant) lyrics about social and personal change for the better.
However, Black And White America (originally titled Funk, and briefly re-titled Negrophilia) is quite a bit heavier on the funk than most of Kravitz’s more commercially successful work. It – like most of Kravitz’s output – occupies a strange space, feeling at once too saccharine for rock fans but too aggressive for pop radio, and too religious for the mainstream, but too sexually charged for the average Christian listener.
The album still has a sort of hyperactive, unfocussed feel to it, and this is perhaps a good thing. There’s something here for any Kravitz fan, from funk (the opening title track with its exceptionally stirring trumpet blasts, and the rave-up stomper Come On Get It) to sex-fueled soul (Liquid Jesus, Superlove), to good old rock ‘n’ roll (Rock Star City Life, Stand). But there’s also the raga-dance oddity, Boongie Drop, which features a lazy rap by Jay-Z.
Kravitz’s lyrics are as heavy-handed as ever, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The man is a torchbearer championing many causes; he advocates spiritual healing just as much as sexual healing, and he’s written more for the causes of love as a cure for war, and acceptance as a counterpoint to racism than any artist in recent memory. So, it stands to reason that he doesn’t aim to be cryptic.
On the title track, he sings this hopeful line, which forms the album’s philosophical backbone: “The future looks as though it has come around. Maybe we have finally found our common ground.” But we’ve also got lines like, “Can I go from behind? Love it! Come on and get it!” juxtaposed with “I’m high on the spirit,” on Come On Get It. On Liquid Jesus, Kravitz sings in a sultry falsetto, “Wash me over, wash me down. I wanna get saved, baby. Ooh! Liquid Jesus.”
Later in the album, on the appropriately soulful Superlove, he coos, “I wanna be inside your superlove.” A euphemism? Certainly, but no match for the new, would-be dance craze of 2011: the Boongie Drop. As in, “Roll, sister, roll on it. Don’t let the music stop. Girl, make that boongie drop.” With a verse from Jay-Z and a guest spot by DJ Military, Boongie Drop is one of the album’s few obvious attempts to break through to the other side of the radio dial, and obvious as it is, it just might work. Who doesn’t want to see a girl drop her boongie on the dance floor? Whatever that means…
Black And White America is by no means a perfect album, and it won’t likely rank among Lenny Kravitz’s most memorable work. It’s hard to top Are You Gonna Go My Way, Fly Away, or Again (which deserves mention among the best love songs of the year 2000). But, it is not a middle-of-the-road throwaway either; there are some fine moments here. Overall, it’s an easily enjoyable album with its heart in the right place.