Review: Jazz/hip-hop trio August Greene challenges self and society in its self-titled debut album

Robert Glasper is joined by Common and Karriem Riggins to form the music group August Greene (Bass Culture Shots/Creative Commons)

August Greene’s early-March release couldn’t be more timely. Rolling with the momentum created by recent films like Black Panther, A Wrinkle in Time, etc., “August Greene’s” black-centric themes are starkly relevant to the social movements taking place in the present day America. And as Common, the group’s poet, thoughtfully opines, distinguished jazz producers Robert Glasper, piano, and Karriem Riggins, percussion, provide a wonderfully solemn score in the style of one of Black culture’s proudest genres.

The trio’s formation in 2018 isn’t entirely unexpected: Riggins has been producing for Common’s solo projects for over 20 years now. Common has been featured in Glasper’s previous work, and Glasper executive produced Common’s 2016 album, “Black America Again,” in which Riggins also helped executive produce.

Coming off the group’s recent Emmy win for its song “Letter to the Free,” which was featured in the Ava DuVernay documentary, “13th,” August Greene channelled the prudent purpose of their award-winning track into its debut album. Without a single lulling movement, the record maintains an admirable focus for the entirety of its 50 minute play-time.

The album begins with “Meditation” with a set of questions. A young man says, “I met a little boy, he asked, ‘where are we now?’ / I met a little girl, she asked if I was proud.” This innocent pondering is answered with a sense of brave perseverance that remains present throughout the LP: “I tell you this, I put the work in daily, so it’s my belief, I can’t fall.”

Common’s performance here is as good as any of his previous endeavors. When Common’s looking in, as he often introspects, his self-questioning thoughts can be universally applied. When he’s looking out or commenting, he hits the nail sharply on the point of a relevant issue. He inspects his blackness from all angles, saying, “I argue with my aura, am I born to win or born to sin?” on “Meditation.” He later adds, “Locked in, trynna get out of the sunken place / A blackness that isn’t defined by a time and space.”

While always highlighting an inherent Blackness in all his introspections, Common touches on other topics like an optimistic future, previous lovers and learning from past mistakes. All the while, Glasper and Riggin’s dreary beat and key latches on to Common’s melancholic word, providing a sonic cushion for his pointed cadences.

Glasper’s delicate piano comforts Common’s rhyme, and Riggins does so much in the way of dictating Common’s adept raps with his heavily syncopated percussion. “Aya” and “Swisha Suite,” the album’s closer, contain little more than the two producer’s fruitful musings. They’re jazz breakdowns done the Glasper way, with the drums doing much more than simply keeping a beat, and his keys speaking just enough to keep the listener hooked.

“August Greene” is always looking forward. With the first phases of the post-Obama world passed, August Greene tries to envision a more inclusive, equal future while persevering and embracing the trio’s past. One of the final phrases uttered on the album’s closing track, “Swisha Suite,” is a repeated, determined, “I got something to say.” The voices that most severely need to be heard, will finally get their chance to speak.

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