Writing for the “The Atlantic” in 2012, essayist and journalist David Samuels called Kanye West “the Mozart of American music.” Barring a cello version of, say, “All of the Lights” on YouTube, that’s probably as close as this generation has come to having Hip-Hop and Classical music rub shoulders. Enter Black Violin, comprised of violist Wil Baptiste and violinist Kev Marcus, who not only make Hip-Hop and Classical touch, it’s a full on love affair, and the sparks are flying in their major-label album debut “Stereotypes.”
The title is an unsubtle hint that the duo are tackling the sort of presumptions the average person no doubt makes when they picture two 6-foot-tall black men with string instruments, that sort of look that sizes them up and says, “That’s interesting.” It’s the look that has likely followed them around in the decade that they’ve worked together, even while on stage performing for President Obama at his 2013 inauguration ball
Those looks of curiosity turn to excitement once these guys get going. “Stereotypes” hits the ground running from the start with its thumping title track, which would sound right at home in a club playing right after Fetty Wap, if not for Baptiste and Marcus propelling the head-nodding beat forward.
That’s the point of course. Baptiste and Marcus see no reason that a viola or violin can’t get the party going. They also don’t want elitist thinking looking down on Hip-Hop. On the title track and throughout, Baptiste and Marcus work their bows furiously, as if each note is swatting away the sort of stereotypes they get regular people (including Marcus himself) to discuss on the song.
That eloquent juxtaposition is more effective than some of the songs with actual lyrics, which say about as much as Baptiste and Marcus’s eclectic arrangements say on their own. The second track, “Invisible” (featuring rapper Pharoah Munch), preaches to us with lines like “They won’t make me disappear. As I rise it’s clear. Here I stand,” but all you can really hear is the vicious bassline that evokes something like Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise.”
Singers Melanie Fiona and Kandace Springs and The Roots’s Black Thought also pop up to spout the album’s inspirational themes, and the string duo gets added musical heft thanks to the pianist Robert Gasper, Soulie’s guitarist Eric Krasno and Bon Iver’s Rob Moose. Those names give you a sense of the various genres being stirred around. The fumes from this potent potion give off not only Hip Hop and Classical, but also R&B, Jazz and funk (a stripped-down rendition of “Walk on By” would make Isaac Hayes smile).
This very rich blend of genres is the duo’s most persuasive sermon on stereotypes, and the best moments on “Stereotypes” simply put on display their swift virtuosity. The fifth track “Shaker” is a joyful stand out; the two race through notes like a kid running down the steps to open presents on Christmas morning. The song is built around a theme that might remind you of “I’m a little teapot” if that teapot had some soul, and hearing the duo play reinvigorates yours.
This album works whether you listen to Mozart or not. And it will work if Mozart is the only type of musician you do listen to. Black Violin made “Stereotypes” for both listeners. Their one hope is that those listeners can become friends. This album will make for a good ice breaker.