EDITOR’S NOTE: In December, we like to take a look back at albums we didn’t get around to reviewing earlier in the year. Black Pumas was released in June.
The Grammy nominations came out recently, and the “Best New Artist” category was quite interesting. You had some obvious top-of-the-charts choices like Lizzo, Billie Eilish, Lil Nas X, and Latin superstar Rosalia. You’ve got buzzworthy NPR faves like Yola, Tank and the Bangas, and Maggie Rogers. Then you have the Black Pumas.
The Grammy nom is a high-profile boost for the Austin, Texas-based duo of singer Eric Burton and guitarist/producer Adrian Quesada. And it’s much deserved, as the Black Pumas’ eponymous debut LP, released this past June, is phenomenal. Black Pumas takes gritty Southern soul (think Hi Records in the 1970s) and wraps it in a modern sheen, creating something that’s simultaneously familiar and fresh.
That modern-retro dynamic hits you in the gut from the beginning with opening track “Black Moon Rising.” Burton sounds like the hybrid successor of Al Green and Bill Withers, crooning over a Quesada soundscape that would feel right at home in Wu-Tang Clan founder RZA’s score to Kill Bill Vol. 1.
As collaborators Quesada and Burton have a natural-sounding chemistry, the latter’s slight rasp perfect on the gospel-infused, string-laden ballad like “Stay Gold” and the simmering, horn-driven funk of “Fire.” And Quesada’s skills as a composer and producer are crucial in creating sonic backdrops ideally suited for a vocalist like Burton that manage to evoke ’60s and ’70s soul without falling into the trap of becoming a pastiche of the material it references.
“Colors,” the album’s swirling second song, is the finest example of how the Black Pumas rearrange and mix together sounds. There are elements of the blues, socially conscious soul a la Curtis Mayfield, and a sturdy rhythm that’s as indebted to the past as it is to modern hip-hop and R&B. The song’s majestic sweep and structure offers up a platform for Burton to utilize the full range of his vocals, and he takes full advantage, using both his low-key croon and a delicate falsetto to great effect.
On “Confines,” Quesada anchors the song with a jazz-influenced drum beat that provides a nice contrast to its subtle, bluesy piano-and-guitar licks and sensational string arrangements. Burton nails his delivery and floats in neatly over the top, which helps maximize both the dramatic effect of the music and his words.
The Black Pumas throw a curveball on the LP’s final number, “Sweet Conversations.” It’s acoustic-based, light, dreamy. The song is a tasteful little capper on Black Pumas and reveals that there’s even more musical avenues the group can travel down in the future.
With 10 songs and the album clocking in at a touch less than 40 minutes, Black Pumas is a tight, fast-moving affair. It’s also one of the most pleasing listening experiences of the year. Between this release and the Grammy nomination, the Black Pumas are worth checking out and getting to know.