Music Review: Esperanza Spalding v. Justin Bieber, last year’s Grammy rematch

Avi Small

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At the Grammy Awards last year, the jazz musician Esperanza Spalding was named “Best New Artist.” Her win came as a bit of a surprise to some who clearly felt passionately about the award, leaving comments on her Facebook page such as “JUSTIN BIEBER DESERVED IT GO DIE IN A HOLE. WHO THE HECK ARE YOU ANYWAY.” Recently, both Spalding and Bieber have released new material. On March 20, Spalding released her fourth studio album, Radio Music Society while Bieber dropped his new single “Boyfriend” on March 26. A year later, the respective quality of these two efforts only serves to vindicate the decision of the Grammy voters. Radio Music Society is an intelligent, musically sophisticated and acoustically rich album, representing the excellent work of one of the most creative and dynamic new artists today. “Boyfriend,” well, isn’t.

Esperanza Spalding is a jazz musician and the jazz chords, scatting and solo improvisation in Radio Music Society situates the album clearly within that genre. Yet jazz music, often dismissed as music for old people, stuffy bars and awkward elevators, is invigorated in this album by traces of pop, R&B and even Gospel (especially in “Black Gold,” the excellent lead single). There is nothing loud or showy about the album. Spalding doesn’t command a listener’s attention with vocal pyrotechnics or a highly produced sound. Instead, over the course of 57 minutes, she earns the attention through her gorgeous music. Her voice, light and free, is impossible to stop listening to; at the moment when she sings “lay your burdens down/don’t even make a sound/don’t worry about a thing” in “Crowned & Kissed” there is nothing that sounds more appealing. Though she creates music that is calm and pleasing to the ear, Radio Music Society is still musically complex enough that it challenges the listener to truly appreciate Spalding’s artistry.

Artistry was clearly not a big concern when producing “Boyfriend.” This song is expertly calibrated to satisfy Bieber’s salivating army of fans. The hook is catchy, the message is sweet and the beat is perfect for those middle school dances where students are just learning how to grind. In the song, Bieber switches between breathy rapping and a breathier falsetto. The song mixes Bieber’s sensual vocals with chastely inoffensive lyrics; the raciest suggestion Bieber has for his relationship is that he and his potential girlfriend could be “chillin’ by the fire while we eatin’ fondue.” The whole track is a sweaty adolescent mess of sexual angst, it’s perfect.

The Grammy Awards got it right with last year’s award for “Best New Artist.” A year later, Esperanza Spalding proves her talent is top notch and that she certainly earned the title. Perhaps next time, to placate the Beliebers, the Grammy Awards should create a new category for “Best New Teen Sex Symbol.” The Biebs would have that one in the bag.

Avi Small