Artist: Fantastic Negrito
Album: The Last Days of Oakland
Label: Blackball Universe
Release Date: 06/03/2016
Fantastic Negrito (Xavier Dphrepaulezz) is a singer/songwriter, based out of Oakland, California, with an incredible life story. As a child, he grew up in an orthodox Muslim household with 14 siblings in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, a small town where W.E.B. DuBois once lived. At age 12 he moved with his family to Oakland, California, but soon left home to live on the streets.
Always drawn to music and performance, by age 20 he taught himself to play a wide array of instruments. In the ‘90s, he signed a deal with Interscope Records, but his sound was lost amongst the rising trend of gangsta rap. Much worse, he was involved in a near fatal car accident resulting in a three-week coma, followed by intensive physical rehabilitation with his guitar playing hand permanently incapacitated.
Finally, he seems to be having his moment. In 2015 he won NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Contest, his music has been featured on Fox’s Empire and in June, he released the fantastic album, The Last Days of Oakland.
A pastiche of responses to questions posed to the public by Fantastic Negrito himself address issues of income inequality, racism and police brutality and provide sonic interludes throughout the album.
“Working Poor” recycles old blues lyrics, “I keep on knocking but I can’t get in,” which take on new meaning and point to the struggle to survive in America’s increasingly gentrified and unaffordable cities. “Scary Woman” is good time rock and soul, with an infectious riff and playful piano fills while “The Nigga Song” cleverly confronts racism by deconstructing the “word” itself: “I need this song. I dropped the ‘e’, added the ‘a’, and killed the ‘r’ to heal my scars. Don’t sing along unless your people hung from trees and slaved til dawn.”
Fantastic Negrito always keeps his tunes fresh and dynamic with unexpected structural changes. Here hand claps and gospel chants in the middle lead to a brief rap about the non-choice of having to choose between “Crips and Bloods.”
“What Would You Do?” takes a pause to ask passersby “Why do you think a lot of young black kids are getting killed by the police?” with varied answers from the street. “In The Pines” takes a country-blues staple and transforms it into a lamentation on the pain mothers go through when burying their sons. Fantastic Negrito’s website features the newly dropped video, which he informed me is “more like a short film.”
With an urgent staccato beat and simmering angst, “Lost In A Crowd” weaves a tale that speaks of the desire to stand as an individual versus the crushing conformity of society. A more tender refrain states: “We’re just people, lonely people you and I.”
“The Worst” begins with acapella moans, and preaches: “Money and power, they’re the root of all evil. People selling people; things they can believe in.”
The interplay between church piano, hammond organ, rootsy acoustic slide guitar, harmonica, female backing vocals, wah-wah and rhythmic stops exemplify the creative alchemy happening throughout the album as a whole.
The Last Days of Oakland is a carefully crafted work at once rooted in deep Americana and set against the more contemporary sounds of modern R&B and hip-hop with lyrics that speak of pain, loss, transformation, love, and ultimately hope. Fantastic Negrito sums it up best:
“The Last Days Of Oakland just means that, hey, it’s over, but something new’s beginning. I feel very optimistic, and I hope that people get that from the record.”
Get the album and find out for yourself. Highly recommended!