With the possible exception of Scientology, funk is the most important religion to emerge from the twentieth century. The faith's founding mothers and fathers, those bold souls of the late sixties and seventies, provided the musical and ideological tenets for a new Greatest Story Ever Told, a mix of Afrocentric attitudes and eruptive rapture. Funk delivered a full body experience, one that provided a mix of agony and ecstasy meant to convey the black experience in America. Devotees listened out of necessity and constancy.
After a considerable waning in the size of funk's congregation, a new set of purveyors has taken up the genre's lessons, though none of them seem particularly pious or inclined to tithe. You'll recognize some of their names—Bruno Mars, Pharrell Williams, Mark Ronson. These stars have taken a turn from what Dam-Funk and other funk revivalists and purists had already offered. They are plunderers of a sacred sound, modern-day raiders clicking and dragging from the scriptures of Parliament and The Gap Band with aims of topping the Billboard charts.
That comparatively commercial approach holds, too, for the rising Boulevards. Less a reaction to hits like "Uptown Funk" or "Treasure" than their logical extension, the impeccably peppy music of Raleigh's Jamil Rashad exists comfortably between retro fetishism and modern pop. As mainstream music has drawn so extensively from funk, boogie, and disco in recent years, it seems only right that a proper funk parishioner try to get in on the hit-making action, particularly one as sincere as Rashad.
Rashad reaches forward more than he leans backward on the emphatically titled Groove!, his full-length debut for the polyamorous Brooklyn label Captured Tracks. A far cry from the salacious dangers of classic Prince or Rick James and far more grounded than George Clinton's imaginative space operas, the album plays up our familiarity with funk in order to make it feel comfortable and compelling.
Boulevards satisfies those who've wanted more funk infiltration in their pop. Spare yet infectious, "Move and Shout" is the sort of track that one expected to hear dozens of times, yet somehow never did, after Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" exploded internationally. He's as tidy as a Timberlake on "Tender," while "Running" suggests he has more in common with The Weeknd's Michael Jackson worship than any throwback boogie revivalism might suggest.
From the delightfully inoffensive groove of "The Spot" to the palatable pop borne of springy G-funk idolatry on "Talk to Me," Groove! never succumbs to the schmaltz of Chromeo. And by keeping the kitsch in check, Rashad's integrity and genuine love of this stuff shine, making him a credible funk missionary at a moment when false prophets often profit from far less. With its winking Grandmaster Flash callback, "Cold Call" employs the same methodology as "Uptown Funk" without ever seeming hacky or gross. That restraint works both ways, of course; it means Groove! is never really too conservative or cloying, but Rashad's lack of mainstream pandering and unwillingness to be exploitative may forever limit him to the realm of indie funk charmer.
Rashad may be a bit too late and safe for these times, anyway. Compared with the Adderall nausea and molly gagging currently running the charts, "Weekend Love"—with its talk of juicy booties and "pussy fiddle," the most explicit cut on Groove!—sounds positively tame. Whether or not there's still an opportunity for this unbridled joy amid the booby-trapped tropical house and soulful sin dominating radio remains unclear. But you gotta believe in something, and Boulevards' Groove! is at least good enough to pull some new congregants into funk's fold.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Beat Theory"