On “Whole World,” the opening track to Aloe Blacc’s debut album, Shine Through, he sings “the whole world reminds me of Nina,” paying homage to Ms. Simone within the first few seconds of introducing his melody. As the track goes on, Marvin Gaye, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Stevie Wonder all get their due, in a sort of tribute and history lesson, one whose whole spectrum informs the wide span of sound on the album. Aloe Blacc (née Nathaniel Dawkins) may technically be a soul singer, but on this incredibly diverse and imaginative album, that’s only one aspect of his stylistic spectrum.
“Whole World” sets the stage for what’s to come, not only name dropping the greats, but dropping some space age lo-fi beats over which Dawkins croons his heartfelt ruminations. And from there, more weirdness, yet sweet, crackly soul sounds emit from “Long Time Coming,” Blacc’s re-interpretation of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Though it is technically a cover, it’s clearly different enough that Dawkins makes it not only his own, but almost a different song entirely. “Are You Ready” keeps up the danceable R&B vibe, maybe even a more mainstream sounding one, what with the added reggae vocals at the end of the track.
Around track five is where the album starts to lose any sense of genre, shifting into Latin rhythms on “Bailar (Scene 1).” No less soulful, yet further delving into Dawkin’s Panamanian roots, it’s a fun change of pace, and one that features the fabulous couplet “I tell her that my name is Nathaniel/She said she only speak in Español.” This Latin vibe continues into the instrumental “Nascimento” (most likely named for Milton), and the Spanish-sung “Patria Mia.” And yet, just one song away in “Caged Birdsong,” Dawkins returns to his hip-hop side. On an album that has this much of a laid back flow, it interrupts things a little, but makes for a decent track regardless. And likewise, Dawkins’ sexually aggressive rap on “Want Me” detracts from an otherwise incredible track.
As this is a Stones Throw release, Shine Through just wouldn’t be complete without a little production from Madlib, who lends his talents to “One Inna.” Another crackly, old school soul track, it’s easily the album’s high point, an irresistible and perfect track, demanding repeated listens. However, album closer “I’m Beautiful” is also a great song, ending the cycle with Dawkins’ most Stevie Wonder-like sound, smooth, organic and exuberantly fat with bass. Listening back over the many varied sounds on this album, it’s sometimes difficult to believe that the same artist is responsible for all of them, but that’s the beauty of Aloe Blacc. In spite of any minor missteps, Nathaniel Dawkins never stays in place long enough for his music to become stale.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.