“My purpose for music is positive social change,” says Orange County, California native Aloe Blacc. “Even if the music itself does not explicitly express anything that may signify positive social change, the product of the music will.” He is speaking in general terms regarding his career, but more specifically about the circumstances surrounding his upcoming album, Good Things, co-written by the versatile vocalist and songwriter in conjunction with the in-house production team at Truth & Soul Records.
Good Things marks a shift in methodology from personal to political for Aloe, who refers to the project as his report on present conditions—joblessness, homeless, the misappropriation of wealth, pillaging of resources, and a universal lack of compassion from the capitalism at-large under which we all function, but some struggle to survive. Song titles such as “You Make Me Smile” and “Miss Fortune,” coupled with airy, ethereal production from Truth & Soul’s Leon Michels and Jeff Silverman mask a foreboding undercurrent in which Aloe crafts lyrics both thoughtful and thought-provoking. Nowhere is this more evident than on lead single, “I Need a Dollar”—commissioned by HBO as the theme music for the series How to Make It in America—because ultimately, that is how to make it in America.
The first-generation American offspring of Panamanian parents, Aloe has become what writer and activist Amiri Baraka (nee Leroi Jones) once said of John Coltrane. He is a singular “scope of feeling…a more fixed traveler” who has found cohesion in art and life. The path from his 2006 debut, the multi-genre Shine Through, to Good Things is akin to the maturation of Marvin Gaye between That’s the Way Love Is and the What’s Going On masterwork that followed. Aloe has never purported to be any heir to Gaye, but musically, Good Things and What’s Going On are companion pieces as both albums establish a character for the artists that sets them apart from the sea of performers making very vivid and discernible—yet normative and conformist—statements about who they are and what they do. Good Things is a definitive declaration that places Aloe directly in the framework of modern soul.
At the heart of this musical character is a recession-age Robin Hood, whose goal is to sell and profit from his wares with hope of freeing the less fortunate from the capitalist system that serves as both their oppressor and his motivation. A 2001 graduate of the University of Southern California, Aloe credits a myriad of influences—transcendentalist scholars Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, French existentialism, Oprah Winfrey, Tavis Smiley, Cornel West—with leading him from the inner streams of consciousness he possessed as an MC early in his career, to a more disciplined approach to songwriting, and now, the desire to affect change and induce compassion by way of his own success. It is his grand scheme, which, not coincidentally, is also the name of his backing band (The Grand Scheme). The key is compromise and understanding the power of popular art. Aloe is willing to put the gloves on and engage in the marketplace. Good things lie ahead. – Ronnie Reese