Silk Sonic: An Evening With Silk Sonic
For the sake of being completely transparent, let me start with this.
Try as I might to avoid doing so, I went into the Silk Sonic album with a heavy dose of trepidation and even more side-eye. From the imagery alone, I was ready for much of what I'd come to associate with Bruno Mars: uninspiring replicas of music that did a decent job of manipulating nostalgia to convince audiences they'd stumbled upon something unique. Harsh, but that's my truth. From Mars, I hear a lite, palatable version of Morris Day & the Time and New Edition for audiences who have never experienced the music or for those who want something familiar to connect them to their child- and early adulthoods.
When the collaboration between Mars and Anderson .Paak made its circuit through everyone's Spotify playlists, I heaved a heavy sigh. Though .Paak's presence added more grounding to Mars' penchant for mimicry, he's also no stranger to putting on personalities to expose his silly side. It's funny and it's cute and it's certainly an endearing trait in the honest-to-god musician. But it didn't do much to allay my suspicions that this wasn't another way to cash in on nostalgia-by-proxy, using music that much of their targeted audience grew up on as a gimmick. As such, I avoided listening "Leave the Door Open," the viral sensation that spread like a forest fire down wind around the world.
So, yeah, you could say going into this I wasn't exactly enthusiastic.
As such (and as I should always strive to do regardless of my preconceived notions) I was intentional about approaching this strictly from the standpoint of the music. Musically, it's quality. The band is tight (mostly live musicians here, which I'll always appreciate). Makes sense, considering .Paak is an incredible drummer and the Free Nationals are a great band that should never be denied their flowers.
As far as the overall picture: it's cute. Sounds like a very competent '70s cover band with great musicians and good singers. Bootsy Collins giving Silk Sonic his stamp of approval shouldn't be taken lightly. But this also shouldn't be taken as seriously as many outlets have done. This isn't the savior of R&B people are attempting to make it out to be. Particularly because R&B doesn't need a savior. When artists like Sy Smith, Stokely, Amel Larrieux, Kindred the Family Soul, Cory Henry and The Internet are just here existing. Hell, Brandy and Erykah Badu are literally still making music. Anderson .Paak and the Free Nationals by themselves are still. making. music! R&B and neo soul are doing just fine, thank you very much. In the hands of very capable artists.
But most people want what's accessible and easy to digest. Silk Sonic is very accessible and thanks to Mars (whom people still acknowledge more than .Paak, the musical center of the outfit) this is very accessible and easy to digest. As is everything he's done since 24K Magic: easy to digest, R&B and funk lite that will please contemporary mainstream masses.
So, yes, musically it is a very good album. There's no denying that. And having listened to it all the way through, it's good fun. But that's what it is. A fun, easy listen that content-wise doesn't add much to the conversation outside of the brilliant composition that's mainly so good to the ear because I've heard it before. And it stirs nostalgia hard and heavy. That's Mars' M.O. and his forte: grabbing your nostalgia by the throat and squeezing with both hands.
However, there are two songs on this album that I absolutely cannot dismiss. Heavy shout outs to "Put on a Smile" and "Blast Off." They are simply gorgeous. The most genuine, cohesive pieces on the album.
"Blast Off," in particular, is what I wanted this album to be to fully allow me to commit to the concept instead of feeling like I'm listening to a cute derivative. The sound profile is a testament to the actual creative ingenuity of Mars and the earthshattering soul of .Paak. The combination creates an aural experience that transports the listener to a new way of thought about how soul, and by extension funk, can really dig into the core of an emotion and illustrate it in Technicolor. The very best of the soul genre understand that it's not about approximating what people expect of it based on labels concocted by those who lack vision and need structure. Soul is what it says it is: music that reaches into you and leaves your soul shuddering. "Blast Off" is soul shuddering.
From the harmonies that are so eloquently sculpted it's as if Mars and .Paak were crafting the song for the past decade; to the composition, so delicately balanced, making brilliant and intelligent use of strings, drums and keyboard; to the layering of vocal and instrument, balanced and mastered within an inch of their collective life. Then the ending vamp that closes the song, and consequently the album, is exactly, exactly what the very best in soul music accomplishes: leaving the listener breathless and on the edge of the sonic abyss. "Blast Off" is a song plucked from the very stars. It elevates the unit to something more than its kitschy concept. If the album was more of this it would've at least earned some of the exaggerated prose written about it, opening the door to a conversation about the best modern "mainstream" purveyors of the craft. The moment where I felt they actually took the piece seriously, "Blast Off" made me believe that beyond the cheeky lyricism and organic goofiness of two close friends there was something truly spectacular here.
So in the end, what's the verdict? Would I reach for this album when I have Earth, Wind & Fire, The New Birth, Sly and the Family Stone, Graham Central Station and Heatwave? Absolutely not. And I might not listen to this album in its entirety again after this review. But am I as cynical about it as I was before listening to it? No. This is still a good album, an amalgamation of soul groups and funk bands that's a commendable love note to the genres it emulates. So let's leave it at that and chuck any other overblown superlatives in the bin where they belong. It still sounds good, it's just not as good as the real thing.