José James

No Beginning No End

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No Beginning No End is singer and songwriter José James' fourth full-length, and his debut for Blue Note. It is as different from each of his previous records as they were from each other. The dozen songs on offer here continually contrast aspects of James' seemingly limitless musical persona: from funky neo-soul to elegant balladry to adventurous pop and R&B. He co-produced the album with bassist Pino Palladino and Brian Bender. He wrote or co-wrote eight tunes. There's lots of musical power here from his touring band, labelmates Robert Glasper and RG Experiment drummer Chris Dave, longstanding collaborator Emily King (who wrote two tunes here and appears as a duet partner), and Moroccan vocalist Hindi Zahra, to name a few. The first single, "Trouble," is rooted in neo-soul with its deeply funky horns (though they sound crystalline), strutting, blues-funk bassline, and rolling B-3, but slips through the genre to make something more now than neo. James’ silky baritone glides effortlessly over the top even when evoking Sly Stone's “If You Want Me to Stay” in his phrasing. "All Over Your Body" is driven by Palladino's belly-bumping bassline, and highlighted by loops, layers of live percussion, Rhodes, and shadowy, sexy horns. James, in slow-burn mode, may not be explicit, but he’s way past suggestive. "Vanguard" with Glasper's Rhodes and Dave's rimshot snare, offers an implied jazz vibe, but the tune’s hook and infectious vamp are mercurial. The haunting “Birds of Space” is spacy, jazzy, 21st century soul that recalls the flavor of James' Dreamer. "Sword + Gun," with Zahra, is exotic. Employing a repetitive sung chant, there are layers of syncopated handclaps, open-mode horns, and Palladino's Afro-funk bassline. When Zahra takes her vocal, James hums in the backdrop, as guitars and cracking snares punctuate her lines. King's "Heaven on the Ground" is a duet with the author. Acoustic guitars, brushed drums, low burning bass, and plenty of sunshine illuminate this jazz-pop love song. (There are two versions of her "Come to My Door" here; she sings on the bonus -- and better -- acoustic version that originally appeared on James' It’s All Over Your Body EP.) The stellar title track is a sexy, simmering babymaker. James is low and slow, aching with longing as Palladino's sub-deep register bass ushers in an impressionistic Rhodes and a subtle rimshot backbeat, as they slide underneath his vocal. The cover of Amp Fiddler's “Tomorrow” is an intimate, spacious piano ballad, with a harmonically rich string arrangement by Jules Buckley. Even with its glacial tempo, James moves with a smoldering intensity through an array of subtle yet intense emotional expressions, never once overstating his case. No Beginning No End is James' most holistic and expansive recording. Here he not only blurs the boundaries of the various genres he examines, but extends them; in the process, he creates a beguiling, sophisticated, important music that is his own.

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