"The only future is the one that nurtures the collective," raps Durham emcee Pierce Freelon at the end of the potent social tirade that comes midway through "Collective," the rollicking, horn-led funk that leads The Beast's strong debut, Silence Fiction. Less than two minutes into the album, Freelon's castigated the cruelties of American history and championed the causes of its valiant rebels, quickly arriving at this, his thesis of unity. As soon as he says it, the music—previously coiled around a relentless beat—sighs, opening into a gentle piano-and-bass trickle. It's as if The Beast is lost in a daydream, fantasizing about the possibilities of us all playing together. And then the moment is gone. This is "revolutionary immunity music," Freelon insists, and there's little time to waste.
Freelon and his bandmates—local jazz standouts pianist Eric Hirsh, drummer Stephen Coffman and bassist Peter Kimosh—live (and, on occasion, suffer) by such inclusion on Silence Fiction. Freelon is a vivid and candid storyteller, pitting the woes of his education against the pride and hope he hears in the voice of his mother, the Grammy-nominated jazz singer Nnenna Freelon. He twists hip-hop, religion, jazz and academia into a complex, personal helix, and he stacks tales of drugs and sex exploits alongside pleas for understanding and communication. Freelon preaches, but never from a pulpit.
Similarly, the band never misses a note or a measure, their refined chops reflected in a resplendent bass tone, effortless but difficult rhythmic shifts and guileless layers of keyboards. But they score a sexy escapade on "Get Gone," dip their toes near Radiohead's OK Computer for "Where is the Light?" and paint Freelon's text with springing beats and melodic slides on "Four Seasons." During "Translation," Orquesta GarDel, Hirsh's big salsa band, joins for a lengthy jam. These musicians aren't above anything.
Of course, beasts are often headstrong, and this one is no different: The quartet's enthusiasm and earnestness, though generally charming, sometimes get the best of them. They chase the funk a bit too hard, or Freelon reaches for a cultural reference that is trite or limp. But how often do you get to criticize a hip-hop record for taking too many chances and sometimes tripping over its own big feet? The Beast, thankfully, doesn't seem to have the patience for your answer.
The Beast releases Silence Fiction with a show at Duke Coffeehouse featuring Kooley High, Freebass 808 and Carlitta Durand Friday, Oct. 16. The show begins at 9 p.m.