In the last several years, much has been said about a vibrant new jazz scene cohering in London. And in that timeframe, Shabaka Hutchings has often been positioned as the luminary and center of the scene, and understandably so. Hutchings is incredibly prolific, constantly putting out one release or another with one of this three projects. There’s Shabaka And The Ancestors, in which he collaborates with South African jazz musicians. There’s the Comet Is Coming, the psychedelic space voyage trio he has with Dan Leavers on synths and Max Hallett on drums. Then there’s Sons Of Kemet, his longest-running and perhaps most acclaimed project, who we last heard from in 2018, when they released Your Queen Is A Reptile.
Your Queen Is A Reptile was the third Sons Of Kemet album but their first for Impulse!, the label Hutchings signed all of his projects to. It garnered them a Mercury Prize nomination and brought a lot more attention not only to Kemet, but to Hutchings and the entirety of the London jazz scene. In the last decade, we’ve seen some interesting plot twists in the world of jazz, with artists like Christian Scott and Kamasi Washington not only pushing the limits of that genre, but breaking into a more mainstream consciousness. Hutchings, with his web of entrancing and exciting albums under each of these three projects, has now done the same.
All of which is to say, Sons Of Kemet’s new album Black To The Future arrives to some pretty high expectations: the next step within the Kemet chronology, the first full-length Hutchings is releasing since Shabaka And The Ancestors’ similarly acclaimed 2020 release We Are Sent Here By History. Hutchings’ albums are often densely narrative at the same time that they are urgently political, which also makes it relevant that Black To The Future is the first album he’s made in the wake of last year’s resurgence of BLM protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. And Black To The Future succeeds in every way you would hope and expect it to. It is another vital piece of music from Hutchings’ universe, one that continues to challenge genre constrictions and expand what Sons Of Kemet can be. It engages directly with issues of race and identity on the other side of 2020, but also on the other side of centuries.
Hutchings might have three distinct projects, but they are also part of one ongoing conversation. Like Your Queen Is A Reptile and We Are Sent Here By History, Black To The Future has a conceptual arc to it, the song titles forming a poem. Hutchings provides clarinet and saxophone while being joined by collaborators specific to the project — Theon Cross on tuba plus dual percussionists Edward Wakili-Hick and Tom Skinner. That means Black To The Future continues the vein of Hutchings’ music consistent with past Sons Of Kemet albums — heavy on grooves and percussion, a propulsive and convulsive sound that is, at the same time, laden with mourning and thematic weight.
This quartet moves as one organism now. On opener “Field Negus,” they create a humid and anxious cloud. More often, they are a roiling, fiery thing — immediately after “Field Negus,” “Pick Up Your Burning Cross” simmers with Hutchings’ layers of clarinet and saxophone creating swirling melodies against a clattering backdrop of drums. Given the tuba-drums-drums lineup, rhythm is crucial to Sons Of Kemet. They make songs that are almost danceable, but just a bit off-kilter and unsteady, music seeking a release from generations of suffering but still beset by its persistence in modern life. Across the album, they lock into powerful grooves, like the guttural beginning of “Hustle,” a rumble that’s impossible to not feel make its way deep into your muscles. Years ago, Hutchings told Stereogum contributor Phil Freeman that he chases what he calls “stupid sax” — although he has impressive technical chops, he’s trying to get at a primal, direct feeling. Even without other voices beamed in on Black To The Future, Sons Of Kemet are plenty capable of riff-driven, catchy jazz, stuff that worms its way into your head before confronting you with the darker currents running through it.
Occasionally, that’s glimpsed musically as well. Hutchings tosses off infectious and direct leads, but he then turns around and leads you into much more meditative or wounded places. One of the most sneakily powerful moments on the album occurs in “Let The Circle Be Broken,” when an easy funk breaks down as Hutchings saxophone begins to sputter and choke, unable to get the words out anymore. “Envision Yourself Levitating” is an equally slippery track, opening with an airy layer of reeds that at first approximates the challenge set forth by the title before becoming something eerier, a sigh of loss.
Black To The Future is anchored by the playing of these four musicians, but it also makes room for an array of outside voices. The frantic awakening of “Pick Up Your Burning Cross” is further complicated by Moor Mother’s presence, a ghostly murmur weaving in and out of the fray. Elsewhere, Grime MC D Double E dances atop “For The Culture” while Kojey Radical growls his way through “Hustle,” balanced out by the gentle coo of Lianne La Havas. Then there’s poet Joshua Idehen.
Idehen and Hutchings are frequent collaborators, and Idehen is a crucial presence on Black To The Future. It’s Idehen’s words that open and close the album. As Hutchings put it in an essay introducing the album, these are moments of “outwards gaze,” outpourings of rage in the wake of George Floyd’s death last year. In “Field Negus,” these words provide an overture for what’s to come. By the end, in “Black,” Idehen’s voice follows all the changing shapes and sounds of Black To The Future. “Black is tired,” he begins, as a chaotic, distraught instrumental rises up to swallow him. But then his voice, distorted and buried as it is, cuts through it all. “This Black praise is dance! This Black struggle is dance! This Black pain is dance!” he howls by the end.
These are echoes of “Imminent,” a Comet Is Coming song released late last year. Idehen proclaimed similar words there, and in no less volcanic a fashion. But as much as there was fury in “Imminent,” the aesthetic of the Comet Is Coming also always provides a spiritual, cosmic transcendence. Sons Of Kemet is more Earthly music, digging down into the past and the bones and the dirt. And in that context, Idehen’s new version of the poem lands completely differently. There are evocations for new beginnings and new visions as the story of Black To The Future, but at the end it circles back to the start — not just to the tone of the album’s opening, but to the origins of this evil carried down through the centuries. It’s a bare moment, one of pure and raw and exhausted hurt. “You already have the world, just leave Black be,” Idehen desperately pleads in the album’s final moments. “Just leave us alone!”
That’s where Black To The Future concludes, but that’s not necessarily its destination. As Hutchings explains, the album flows inwards from both of Idehen’s appearances, meeting in the spiritual grounding of album centerpiece “To Never Forget The Source.” “The Source refers to the principles which govern traditional African cosmologies/ontological outlooks and symbolizes the inner journey,” Hutchings wrote in that album essay. “It is the unifying factor that gives meaning both to looking backwards… and visioning forwards…”
This is, in some sense, the entire point of Hutchings’ music, across his projects. On Black To The Future, it’s there in the genre implosion of “Hustle” or the broken dreams of “Black” or the transporting moments in “To Never Forget The Source” and “Envision Yourself Levitating.” Structurally, Hutchings abandons the academic definitions of his genre and collides Black traditions from across generations and borders, with rap and jazz and the sounds of his Barbados upbringing all at play. But in a more abstract way, Hutchings pulls his music through the past and the present, collapsing time to dream up a better future. Black To The Future, with a pun on a movie title that already messed with chronology, makes that more explicit than ever. The album is one more resounding statement in a worldview and mission Hutchings has been carving out in the last several years — another powerful, knotted, rewarding, and vital entry in what is fast becoming a formidable body of work.
Other albums of note out this week:
• St. Vincent’s Daddy’s Home.
• J. Cole’s The Off-Season.
• The Black Keys’ Delta Kream.
• Juliana Hatfield’s Blood.
• The Chills’ Scatterbrain.
• Smol Data’s Inconvenience Store.
• Sarah Neufeld’s Detritus.
• Alessandro Cortini’s SCURO CHIARO.
• Paul Weller’s Fat Pop (Volume 1).
• John Andrews & The Yawns’ Cookbook.
• SHAED’s High Dive.
• Pantopticon’s ...And Again Into The Light.
• Babe Rainbow’s Changing Colours.
• Johanna Samuels’ Excelsior!.
• Fightmilk’s Contender.
• LSDXOXO’s Dedicated 2 Disrespect EP.
• Okey Dokey’s Leaky Sealing EP.
• Jorja Smith’s Be Right Back EP.
• Zombi’s Liquid Crystal EP.