Lenny Kravitz has never been one for boxes. When he broke onto the scene 22 years ago with Let Love Rule, his brand of psych-and-funk-tinged retro rock, coupled with his roots (his mother was black, his father white, his religion a mixture of Christianity and Judaism), confounded critics and radio executives alike. And to an extent, that's never really changed, though, with each successive hit — "Let Love Rule," "Are You Gonna Go My Way," "Fly Away," "American Woman," to name just a few — he's become less of a curio case and more of a career artist.
But with his new album, Black and White America (due August 30), Kravitz is still dealing with boxes ... though, these days, they seem to have less to do with his background than they do with the music he makes.
"Now, it's less about the color, but more about still not fitting in a box; and this radio station doesn't play this or that," he told MTV News. "This is what always gets me, [now it's], 'This radio station doesn't play horns.' Now we have racism against instruments. You know, 'It's rock, but it's too funky.' Or 'It's funky, but it's got too much rock.' People love their slots, their little boxes."
For lack of a better term, there are plenty of slots on America, a far-ranging, lushly produced opus that seems destined to give radio programmers fits. Over the course of 16 tracks, it dabbles in whip-smart funk, crackling soul, classic pop and, of course, all-out rock, (to name just a few genres), and features guest appearances from Jay-Z and Drake. Not surprisingly, fitting in wasn't what Kravitz had in mind when he was recording it. His only goal was "to make a double album ... a classic two-pieces-of-vinyl, four-songs-per-side thing." And America certainly plays that way.
But for all the genre-jumping, there's one theme that keeps popping up throughout the album: the idea of unity. It's central to current single "Stand" and it's the core idea behind the album's title track too.
"The inspiration came from a documentary that I was watching. ... It was about a group of Americans, I'm sure somewhere tucked away, and they were saying they were disgusted by what America had become, they were disgusted that there was an African-American commander in chief; they're not for racial equality, they would like America to be back to the way it was 100 years ago and, basically, they would do anything it took to make sure that their idea of America was restored, down to assassination, etc.," Kravitz explained.
"And it was with such hatred and, obviously, we know that racism exists but somehow they threw me for a loop. I was like, Really? For real? So the chorus of the song ... I was just saying to them, This is what's happening, you need to know what time it is. It's how I was raised; I grew up between two cultures at a pivotal time after the civil rights movement, and [it's] the story of my parents, and what they went through. It's very natural for me to write about that sort of thing."
Of course, America isn't all heavy lifting. "Rock Star City Life" is a down-and-dirty ode to excess, "Superlove" is a sumptuously sexual exercise in viscous funk, and the rattling "Boongie Drop" is about, well, ass. To a degree.
"Well, "boongie" is a Bahamian word for ass. But it's not just an ass-shaking song. There's a place down the street from where I live, and on Sunday nights, people come down there and dance," Kravitz said. "It's like a red light-bulb, pool-table shack and this DJ, Military. And the thing I found beautiful was that you have these really full-figured Bahamian women showing up there, they know they're beautiful, and they're not buying into the lie, the stereotype of what media says is beautiful. They exude this pride, and the song's about that."
If you couldn't tell, there's nary a musical corner Kravitz didn't explore on the album (he wrote some 30 songs for the project), which was his mission all along. He spent nearly two years making it in a studio down in the Bahamas, where, for the first time in his career, he was given the space he needed to let his ideas flower. In short, it's the kind of album an artist has to earn the right to make and, if anything, Kravitz has definitely done that.
"It was the dream location, the dream studio," he said. "I had time and, actually, perspective, having been doing this for 22 years. I feel like it's the best record I've ever made."
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