Moor Mother has made rap records and she’s made jazz poetry. She’s done noise rock and industrial hip-hop and free-jazz protest operas based around the housing crisis. And she did all of that within the span of a year; to say her 2020 was prolific doesn’t quite accurately capture the volume of work she delivered, a streak of six album length projects arriving between March and December, each of them pushing one sonic extreme or another but all defined by Camae Ayewa’s uniquely confrontational vessel for compassion. “I like to punch people in the heart and then kiss the heart,” as she recently put it.
There are few better examples of this duality inherent in Moor Mother’s music–of beauty and intensity, grief and warmth–than “Temporal Control of Light Echos,” the opening track of Black Encyclopedia of the Air, her first release through Anti-. Ayewa sounds as if she’s stepped through a trans-dimensional portal into vastest space, warmly glowing keyboards and robotic vocal effects reverberating beneath her spoken-word narrative, which saves the heart-punch for last: “This place is a gathering of bones.”
Black Encyclopedia of the Air finds Moor Mother in modes both playful and pointed, but it’s also by far the most accessible album she’s released. Collaborator and producer Olof Melander helps to provide a sonic counterpoint via downtempo grooves and boom-bap-via-jazz-fusion keyboards. And it’s consistently mesmerizing and gorgeous, a less frayed and more sonically luxurious means through which to explore ideas of bridging past and future and reckoning with generations of violence. When she quips, “Ain’t no mountain high enough to escape this confederate landscape,” on “Mangrove,” her invocation of Marvin and Tammi classic soul is every bit as significant as her liberation cartography.
For an artist with an aesthetic affinity for noise, Moor Mother takes to this cosmic late-night vibe masterfully. Not that it’s the first time she’s ever done so; “Passing of Time,” the closing track of 2019’s Analog Fluids of Sonic Black Holes provided a precursor of sorts to this album’s hypnotic beats and astral lullabies. But there’s a bit more funk behind a standout like “Mangrove,” in which Ayewa trades verses with Armand Hammer’s Elucid, and a slow-motion crackle to the beat that underscores her mission statement on “Shekere”: “My responsibility to the earth, to the hurt, I rework/Self-determination.” Even as she wrestles with trauma and the work of charting a path forward, everything here simply sounds spectacular. It’s not that the record is entirely devoid of noise, though, as first single “Zami” finds Ayewa invoking Sun Ra’s Afrofuturist journeys amid harshly buzzing synthesizers: “We travel the spaceways/ What the FUCK you say?”
The abrasion and aggression that’s defined Moor Mother’s music in the past has always served to bolster the resolve and determination behind her words. And we most certainly haven’t heard the last of it. But as just one of many different musical directions that Moor Mother has taken over her career, the late-night groove of Black Encyclopedia of the Air makes it one of her most on-repeat listenable records, a statement of melodic defiance she summarizes best in “Shekere” when she says, “We will outlast, rise up from the past/Our future will shake with that ass.”
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.