Let’s state the obvious: when the Black Pumas emerged, they set the bar awfully high. Eric Burton garnered praise for his ethereal vocals, and producer/co-writer Adrian Quesada was lauded for his tapestry. Along with that came accolades from the Grammys and the White House. And on a deeper level, their hit “Colors” — off their debut release — gave comfort to a nation overwhelmed by a pandemic, politics and protests.
With a debut album that achieved a level of success no one could have predicted, one had to wonder if the Austin-based duo could meet or even exceed expectations? Rest assured, Chronicles of a Diamond is no sophomore slump. Burton and Quesada take their swagger and layers up a notch in this no-skips album, mixed by Grammy winner Shawn Everett.
“More Than A Love Song,” which the Pumas produced with another Grammy winner, John Congleton, is an epic cinematic opener. Burton runs through scales like a rocket blasting into the stratosphere. Right when you’ve settled into the groovy beat, powerful electric guitar chords lead to an unexpected shift into gospel harmonies. “Life is more than a love song, more than a fantasy,” Burton hammers through with the backing choir.
The heavy electric guitar returns in “Ice Cream (Pay Phone),” juxtaposing Burton’s falsetto and a jolly ice cream jingle that weaves throughout. Add in some synth pop at the bridge, and you have a combo that’s thrown everything into the mix but the kitchen sink. But this is the Black Pumas after all, so it all blends smoothly.
The piano glitters in the complex tapestries of “Mrs. Postman,” an ode to the working class cowritten with keyboardist JaRon Marshall, and “Chronicles of a Diamond,” an ode to those who worked their way out of the working class.
The duo then takes listeners on a journey in “Gemini Sun,” another track produced with Congleton. The verses, marked with ominous, minor-key electronica, immediately flip to light, major-key refrains. The quick turns create an impressive yin-yang effect, with Burton’s voice confidently guiding the way.
And while they’re master mixers, Black Pumas still excel stripped down. “Angel,” with nothing but guitars and Burton’s confident vocals, is a soulful meditation, properly placed after the intensity built from the album’s first half. “Tomorrow” holds the same easygoing effect, moving forward with only steady drums, a few brushes of synth and comforting lyrics.
There’s plenty of risk in experimentation, especially in a second album, but Chronicles of a Diamond shows the rewards for daring to do so. In the first go-round, Black Pumas might have been a diamond in the rough. But now they’re proving to be a crown jewel.