Black Radio III
Loma Vista

Update: Black Radio III won best R&B album at the 65th Grammy Awards Feb. 5 — Glasper’s fifth Grammy.

The opening track on Robert Glasper’s Black Radio III is called “In Tune” and features the poet Amir Sulaiman reciting in spoken-word style his moving poem on how racism is intertwined into the consciousness of much of America. And of how music provides the opportunity to enjoy a sort of freedom. It’s a stunning track with Sulaiman’s powerful words backed by Glasper’s piano, a low-key bass clarinet and a trumpet.

It sets the stage for the rest of the album, 13 tracks each featuring an A-list of contemporary black musicians drawn from genres ranging from R&B, hip-hop, jazz and soul. It’s a project that embodies an urgent commentary on the theme of black consciousness in a world where discrimination and prejudice are more visible and potent than ever before. But it also celebrates black consciousness and pride.

Glasper, 43, has won four Grammys and is probably among the few living musicians (he’s a pianist, composer and producer) to be able to effortlessly traverse between genres, synthesizing different styles smoothly to create music difficult to define but easy to become addicted to. The musicians featured on Black Radio III include rappers Killer Mike and Q-Tip; bassists and singers Esperanza Spalding and Meshell Ndegeocello; jazz, soul and gospel vocalist Gregory Porter; singers Lalah Hathaway and Jennifer Hudson, and many others.

It’s been nine years since the Houston native released Black Radio II, which was preceded by Black Radio, both albums also featuring a host of guest musicians. But it’s the sense of urgency that sets the third album apart. The fact that the album’s tracks jump from genre to genre but also often merge them — jazz, for instance, fused with hip-hop or soul — makes it at once a compelling yet complex album. It can be unsettling sometimes to listen to tracks that begin, say, as hip-hop songs and then morph into jazz sequences, but when you get into the flow of the album, it’s difficult to extricate yourself.

On “Black Superhero,” Killer Mike, Big K.R.I.T and others sing, “Every block, every hood, every city, every ghetto (up in the sky) / Need a Black superhero (it’s a bird) / Every block, every hood, every city, every ghetto (it’s a plane) / Need a Black superhero,” but as the rapping ends, there’s a short monologue on how the only living god on the planet is the Black woman.

On another of the album’s standout tracks, “Why We Speak,” former Austinite Esperanza Spalding sings exquisitely in French and plays the bass, but toward the middle of the track we hear Q-Tip singing in English. “Se souvenir – While we speak the English,” goes the chorus, “Se souvenir – While we speak the French / Se souvenir – While we speak the Spanish / Se souvenir – And bargain with the vendors / Se souvenir – Not to sell our souls / Se souvenir – In between, remember how to speak.”

On the slowed-down cover of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants To Rule the World,” Lalah Hathaway and the rapper Common transform the well-known tune into something unexpected but also enjoyable.

Black Radio III is full of surprises. You can find hip-hop morphing into soul, and jazz meeting R&B — sometimes all of that in the same song. In an interview with the global music streaming platform Tidal, Glasper explained how Black Radio III differed from the previous two similarly themed albums (Black Radio and Black Radio II): “When I made Black Radio and Black Radio II, that was on the heels of Obama … and then making III was at the end of Trump, so it’s a different vibe. And with everything that was going on — with the police shootings and George Floyd and you name it — as an artist, you have a choice to make: It’s like, ‘Do I make an album and really address this stuff?’”

Glasper chose to do just that. With the world ravaged by the pandemic and in-person collaboration difficult, he built a small studio in the back of his home and traded sound files with the list of collaborators featured on the album. Clearly, making an album as complex and multi-genre as Black Radio III wasn’t easy, but Glasper has pulled off the ambitious project. One of the tracks, “Better Than I Imagined,” which was released as a single last year and features Ndegeocello and the R&B singer H.E.R., won a Grammy at last year’s ceremony for best R&B Song.

Musicians such as those who’ve collaborated on Black Radio III straddle different styles and genres, but with this album, Glasper has again proven how masterful he is at synthesizing types of music that can otherwise be so disparate.

Cover promo photo by Mancy Gant. This review originally ran on