Smuggling heartbreak into feel-good pop is a delicate art. There are the classic examples: Morrissey's doom and gloom over Johnny Marr's sunny guitar lines, or Mark Morrison's scorned confidence on "Return of the Mack." Raleigh's Jamil Rashad is certainly inching his way toward timeless classics in this vein. Hurtown, USA, his new record as synth-funk alter ego Boulevards, will set any party on fire if you let it. It might also make you cry.
As with past releases, Hurtown, USA works because Rashad is the real article, a mini-superstar. His ability to deliver golden hooks, his ostentatious fashion, his athletic live shows—everything about him demonstrates an effortless charisma. On this record, he takes things deeper than ever. The track "Hurtown" in particular is a disorienting rush of R&B radio gold. Over a thick disco bass line and bright Chic guitars, Rashad conveys emotional distress via the image of driving blackout drunk one night.
In a surprising turn, Alan Palomo, of synth-pop outfit Neon Indian, handles production duties on "Nu Burn Ave (Intercruise)." In case the pile of other local allusions on the record don't alert you, the title is a reference to Raleigh's New Bern Avenue. Palomo's music has long been steeped in the Nile Rodgers land of the good groove, and here, his slinky post-disco production drops in effortlessly. Elsewhere, producers Adam Rich (aka Rollergirl) and Secret Attraction deliver pitch-perfect funk accompaniment, not to mention Raleigh vocalist Laura Reed, who gives an electrifying performance on several songs.
Is there room for improvement for Rashad? A little. Occasionally the loose, seemingly improvisational bridges, like the one toward the end of the otherwise excellent "Hurtown," can feel undercooked and out of step with the rest of the song. But it's not enough to derail Boulevards' boogie. At this rate, Rashad is on schedule to deliver a classic record before we know it.