Jazz pianist Robert Glasper has already had, in just over a decade, a storied career, defined by his ability to intersect genres and engage listeners from a variety of musical disciplines. His discography spans at least three genres (jazz, hip-hop, R&B), two musical projects (Robert Glasper Trio and Robert Glasper Experiment), two Grammys (best R&B album and traditional R&B performance), and countless high-profile collaborations, from Kendrick Lamar to Erykah Badu to, most recently, Common. None of this was an accident: Glasper sat down with us to dissect his seven albums across his two projects, and the further down the list we went, the clearer it became that each musical choice was made deliberately with the goal to reach across the aisle to musical counterparts and listeners and pull them into his world.
7. Double Booked (2009)
Noisey: I know it's not easy to list any of your music as "last," but how did the split record between the Experiment and the Trio and up as number seven on this list?
Robert Glasper: It's a bittersweet transition because that was really "So long trio, hello Experiment" kind of vibe. The Experiment had never made a record before, and it was only a half record on Double Booked, so it didn't have a huge impact necessarily. Half of my fans just like the Experiment and half of my fans just like the trio. It was kind of a lot of bittersweetness, a lot of yin and yang, kind of in limbo or the middle of all these things happening.
Why did you decide to move forward with the Experiment and put the trio on hiatus?
I had played with the trio for so long, I started my trio in 2000 while I was in college with Damion Reid and Vicente Archer. I got signed to Blue Note in 2005; I did a small record and touring in 2002 before I got signed. Once I got signed I stayed with the trio for another four years. So when Double Booked came out in '09 I was with my trio for nine years. That pretty much gave me my start and gave me my name and popularity. But I felt it was time to make a change and do something different and do something that could cross over even more. You can only go so far in a piano trio. With Double Booked I never did a tour. It's the only album where I didn't do a tour.
6. Covered (2015)
The last album on this list was the album you put the trio on hiatus, but the next album, Covered , was actually the return of the trio seven years later.
( Laughs) Exactly. So number six on this list is Covered. This was kind of my "OK I'm kind of tired of the Experiment now, let me do something else." It's great having two bands; it's like having two wives ( laughs). I'm a polygamist musically if that makes sense.
It makes too much sense.
( Laughs) So with the Experiment stuff I was doing that for five or so years, and people miss me playing trio. They miss my piano playing. I didn't play much piano with the Experiment. It's more electric stuff, keyboards and Rhodes kind of vibe. So people started missing that so I went back to that, but I didn't want to go back in the same way I had done it before. I figured out a way to make it work because at this point I've gone mainstream, and I've acquired two R&B Grammys, and I have a mainstream audience as well as my jazz audience. Now that I have more people to please, my thing was how do I please all parties at one time? And I found a way: I'm gonna play piano trio for the people that love my trio playing, but I'm going to play songs that the average listener knows. I'm not going to overly arrange and overly "jazzify" the songs, which is normally what a jazz musician would do—take all the beauty out of it just to make it complex. So I just played the songs as they were. I didn't change much of anything. It's a chill record. I didn't even solo on every song. It was more about the melodies and the beauty of the songs and that's what this album was for.
Is it safe to say that since these were covers and not your own original music you weren't as emotionally invested in the content?
Exactly, exactly. It was just me coming back to the trio and trying to find my footing and figure some shit out.
5. Art Science (2016)
What surprised me the most was that number five is Art Science , which just dropped this year.
(Laughs) We decided as a band to do this album just us. We went to the studio for two weeks, wrote all the songs in the studio, and we all sang them and all that stuff. Everybody produced it. This album is not produced by me; it's produced by all of us. We all wrote the songs, so it's not necessarily my baby, it's all of our babies.
I never want to write the same record twice, even if it's a part two of something it has to have its own identity. We didn't want to necessarily do a Black Radio Three. Other than Double Booked the only times The Experiment has been recorded was Black Radio. And those albums are featuring singers, it's not really featuring the band so much. We didn't want to be the band that needed special guests to be poppin', and that's the reality. I fell into the Black Radio thing and couldn't get out. It was important for us to do the album and not rely on anyone but us so we could find our sound. I told everyone don't worry about genre, just write songs. It's kind of everywhere. The thing is I'm sick of Art Science, which is probably why it's number five. ( Laughs) Most of the time when an artist puts out a record it's new to the world but old to the artist because we had to work so much on the damn songs. The mixing, mastering, recording, we've listened to the album a million times. But by the time the world hears it we're kind of onto the next project in our minds. You kind of check out.
4. Canvas (2005)
This was your first major label album, on Blue Note.
I was the first instrumentalist to be signed to Blue Note in six years. Jazz was kind of on its way out, and luckily they found Norah Jones, and she won eight Grammys and made Blue Note millions and millions of dollars. I joke around with Norah sometimes that I was going to name the album "Thanks Norah." After she did what she did, Blue Note was able to sign an instrumentalist again and let me do what I wanted to do. That album was really special, it was significant because when I got signed it was a year after my mom passed. I put the last song on that record as a tribute to her. That particular album was to showcase more so my compositions and who I am. It was more so here's me, here's my sound, here are my compositions.
3. Black Radio 2 (2013)
Between Canvas in 2005 and Black Radio 2 you won a Grammy, your son was born, you had some high profile collaborations. Did any of this play into the development of Black Radio 2?
I made Black Radio 2 number three because it wasn't (Black Radio) number one ( laughs). It wasn't number one because Black Radio was a whole other thing, and the reason there's a number two was because of number one, which won the big Grammy. But it wasn't ranked two because I feel like the album that first gave me my real identity and first got everyone talking about me and even that crossover appeal came from In My Element. It was more of an important album than Black Radio 2 because it set the tone of getting to Black Radio.
I love the record. Like I said I don't like to do the same record twice. I wanted to be more R&B: At that point we had already won the R&B Grammy, and we're in the R&B world, and everyone is looking at us, so let's do an R&B album. And we got nominated for R&B album for the year and won for the Traditional R&B song with Lalah Hathaway. A lot of times the ranking has nothing to do with the music it's just like, for this one it was just what it meant at the time compared to the other albums.
2. In My Element (2007)
Why do you think In My Element crossed over and did so well?
It did well because it was the one album that really defined my trio, and it was focused on the trio. At that point I had really gotten comfortable with my whole hip-hop meeting jazz vibe. At that point it was my first time putting something that was hip-hop and grooving like an R&B song on an album as a whole song, before that it was just little snippets. On canvas it was just one or two snippets of something that had a backbeat that kind of sampled from hip-hop shit. But there was no whole song that was that. So In My Element was my first album that came out and said "hey here's a hip-hop joint." And I did a tribute to J Dilla on it. That in itself, just the tribute to J Dilla with Q-Tip calling and leaving that message, that ran through all the hip-hop blogs. Everybody was fuckin' with that. That kind of gave me a lot of shine in the mainstream world. I started getting hit up for all kind of interviews that the average jazz musician wasn't getting because of my affiliation with Dilla and the fact that I worked with him and knew him and was one of the only jazz cats that had done that.
Then I had another song on there called "F.T.B.," which also crossed over. That was my first song that girls like. (Laughs) The average mainstream girl who listened to Beyoncé was loving this song "F.T.B." We would play it live, and girls would go crazy. Even before we recorded it we were playing it live, but once it got recorded people started playing that on the smooth jazz channels and R&B radio stations. Between Dilla and "F.T.B." it just had that kind of appeal and that's when my audience started becoming mad urban and mad young and mad college kids and hip-hop heads and jazz heads.
1. Black Radio (2012)
That was five years before Black Radio . You're messing with this sound and starting to give off this hip-hop vibe, but Black Radio won a Grammy and a ton of people started paying attention.
Ah man, that shit was like night and day. It was like I woke up in a dream, at best. To be honest Black Radio was a thought in my mind, and you know when I first got signed, me and Eli Wolf talked about it in 2005. We both agreed we would make that record one day, but first let's solidify myself as a jazz pianist that people can respect first. Once you get the respect, people will trust you when you bring out something new.
Exactly, and trusted. So when we did Black Radio it was a labor of love. It was so hard getting all those people to try to put that album together: people's schedules, 12 different lawyers, 12 different labels, 12 different managers, assistants—it was so much, and it was really hard to get together. I was trying to put it together for a certain week, and it just wasn't coming together so we canceled it. I ended up going on tour. We just canceled it, and I went on tour and was like, "we'll deal with it when I get back and try to figure out another week where we can get this done." While we're on tour we're in Europe somewhere, my manager calls and says "all of the artists, randomly for some reason, the universe came to it a conclusion that all the artists are available this one week." It was when I was still on tour, so I had to cancel a week of work, a week of tour. At that time I didn't even know what we were going to play, I didn't have any ideas, 'cause in my mind we were gonna wait and do it another time.
So now I've got a few days, and they're going to fly me out to LA to do this record, so I'm having people bring me keyboards to my hotel rooms while I'm in Europe trying to write songs. We get to LA and we did the album in six days. People just came through the studio and some things were made up on the spot, we didn't know what we were going to do. In my mind I was just like let's just do what we do onstage, what we've been doing onstage. Bilal used to join us onstage, when Ledisi used to join us onstage, when Erykah used to join us on tage. We'd just be doing our thing. We'd just being doing us, Dilla-esque jazz R&B shit. That album literally tilted the music scene, it made a huge wave. It was a trailblazing record. It literally changed the music scene. It even changed the way labels were thinking. It changed the way the Grammys thought. When we won the Grammy, it was like I won for all independent, honest, eclectic artists that weren't the cookie cutter. Especially if you're black it's hard to get a Grammy because they put you in such a box, and they only have a certain few boxes for black people at the Grammys. You have to be straight up R&B, you gotta be Chris Brown or you gotta be Beyoncé—which one are you? ( Laughs) Chris Brown, Beyoncé, and Jay Z, which one are you? And when we won, it let people know that, damn, you don't have to be one of those. A lot of people on the album had never won a Grammy. It was so dope that we won, and it gave so many people hope. It was at the right time too. It was an important record. All my other records are great records and I love them, but the most important album I feel was Black Radio.
Pat Shahabian is a writer, producer, and musician based in New York. Follow him on Twitter.