With Nuyorican poet/emcee/programmer Mike Ladd’s Negrophilia, Thirsty Ear’s Blue Series continues its string of adventurous, technically developed but ultimately unsatisfying exercises in genre bending. Ladd is an extremely ambitious producer with several excellent left-field hip-hop collections to his name. But Negrophilia‘s stream-of-thought, cut-and-paste method resembles his better-known material only in passing, with his own erratic spoken words serving mainly to rattle off obscure cultural references at a near-glacial pace.
For Negrophilia, Ladd teamed with Vijay Iyer, whom he worked with on 2003’s similarly high-minded In What Language. A cast of jazz notables, including trumpter Roy Campbell and drummer Guillermo E. Brown, are also involved. Their set of reassembled electronic fusion is unified by its loosely framed themes regarding the potential dissolution of the modern black identity. The album’s title specifically references a 1920s French commentary on the jazz-age love affair between Paris and black America, but Ladd’s ideas are much larger. He traces a slowly evolving cultural gentrification moving from infamous expatriate Josephine Baker to the current crop of hygienically streamlined R&B stars. It outlines an unhealthy global addiction to and emulation of black culture, wherein the imitators negate the significance of their forebears and the most talented modern proponents of ethnically inclined art are often relegated to performing for mostly monotone fringe audiences.
This is indeed a much more challenging concept than one might expect from virtually any other current hip-hop personality. But Ladd, despite approaching the microphone several times throughout the album, never truly fleshes out his ideas, and the willfully obtuse brilliance of a line like “Brancusi sculpting Beyonce/ in gold lame” is lost in the shuffle of irregular phrases and abrasive, croaking bass tones.
Still, the instrumental unit accompanying Ladd is a brilliant one, with Iyer’s work often resembling the deft ivory interplay of series curator Matthew Shipp. The single, “Shake It,” showcases the album’s best tendencies, with an angular, unconventional programmed beat, atonal fuzz textures, and remarkable ringing horn work from Campbell and saxophonist Andrew Lamb. Ladd’s lyrics are freeform, filled with interesting but ultimately scattershot phrases alternately referencing Tarzan, “JoJo Baker” and “disco at Hottentot.” Instrumental highlight “Back At Ya” resembles “Watermelon Man”-era Herbie Hancock, but due to its reconstructed nature bears several minor instances of awkward or misplaced timing and does not flow as smoothly as a live rendition might.
I get the sense Ladd possesses virtually endless troves of highly literate cultural commentary that he can mine, as evidenced by his solo efforts as well as concept records by fictional indie hip-hop tribe Infesticons and their more aggressively capitalist mirrors, the Majesticons. But Negrophilia must ultimately be classified as a noble effort whose scope and potential simply outweighs the limits of its delivery.