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Aural Pleasure Review

Esperanza Spalding: 'Radio Music Society'

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Esperanza Spalding is jazz's first bona fide star in decades. Understandably so: she's attractive, immensely talented, and plays an instrument bigger than she is. Of course, in the popular music landscape, being jazz-famous is about the fame equivalent of being the best-known character on Justified (which if you haven't heard of, exactly.) And so there is Radio Music Society, in which, as the title suggests, Spalding aims to rein in her esoteric jazz leanings in favor of an R&B-heavy, radio-ready sound that will guarantee her crossover success. Well, kind of. The record certainly sounds more Erykah Badu than Art Blakey, but Spalding isn't quite ready to shed her jazz colors. The split approach ends up putting Radio awkwardly in the middle, with otherwise pop-friendly tracks stuffed with sudden key changes, tempo shifts, and knotty arrangement flourishes. Rather than adding complexity, the tack simply undercuts any sort of groove. Tellingly, it's the tracks written by or featuring other artists that hit the hardest, particularly the air-tight funk of Wayne Shorter's "Endangered Species," and the effortless soul of the Q-Tip-produced "Crowned & Kissed." Left on her own, however, Spalding seems lost, an artist paralyzed in her desire to have her jazz and sell it too.

★★ ½ (out of 5 stars)

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