Kool and the Gang - Still Kool (2007)

Kool and the Gang
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As 2006 rolled along, with hip-hop beginning its slow decline and emo-rock moving up the popular charts, about the last act anyone expected to land a hit on the pop and urban charts was Kool and the Gang.  Sure, they were cool in their first incarnation in the 70s, playing hot funk and jazz and singing cuts like "Hollywood Swinging" and "Jungle Boogie," but by the time they were releasing late 80s drivel such as "Fresh" and "Victory," the Gang was sounding about as soulful as Abba.  Their fall from grace was swift, and urban fans still weren't ready to re-embrace the Gang years later when they reunited with James "JT" Taylor for the underrated State of Affairs album.  So it was a shock when, 20+ years after their peak, there was Kool & the Gang rising up the major charts with the very enjoyable adult dance cut "Steppin' Into Love." 

As 2006 rolled along, with hip-hop beginning its slow decline and emo-rock moving up the popular charts, about the last act anyone expected to land a hit on the pop and urban charts was Kool and the Gang.  Sure, they were cool in their first incarnation in the 70s, playing hot funk and jazz and singing cuts like "Hollywood Swinging" and "Jungle Boogie," but by the time they were releasing late 80s drivel such as "Fresh" and "Victory," the Gang was sounding about as soulful as Abba.  Their fall from grace was swift, and urban fans still weren't ready to re-embrace the Gang years later when they reunited with James "JT" Taylor for the underrated State of Affairs album.  So it was a shock when, 20+ years after their peak, there was Kool & the Gang rising up the major charts with the very enjoyable adult dance cut "Steppin' Into Love." 

It took nearly a year after "Steppin'" for the release the accompanying album, but it has finally arrived in the form of Still Kool on the Universal-affiliated New Door Records.  With original group members Robert "Kool" Bell, Khalis Bayyan, George Brown and Dennis Thomas teaming with 23-year old guest vocalist Jirmad Gordon, Still Kool is the Gang's attempt at an amazing third incarnation.  And the good news is that Still Kool finds this legendary band sounding relevant and very enjoyable in its fifth decade of existence.  If the 80s brought a somewhat poppified, dumbed down version of Kool's 70s funk, Still Kool brings a more mature sound that keeps the grooves tight but also allows the band to show more of its jazz roots, especially on cuts like "Bang Bang With the Gang" and "Too Low For Zero."  And while a couple of ill-advised hip-hop cuts litter the album, they are more than outweighed by a plethora of enjoyable mid- and up-tempo cuts such as "Dave," "Give It Up" and "Too Low For Zero" and blue-lights-in-the-basement slow jams like "Everything's Gonna Change," "Sorry" and "Made For Love."

Perhaps the Gang's biggest development here is lyrical, with much of the silliness of earlier work from "Jungle Boogie" to "Get Down On It" replaced on a number of tracks with more thoughtful, if somewhat idealistic, poetry focused on universal human relationships.  There are still songs about dancing and romancing, but the lyrical variety certainly makes for a more interesting overall package.

It's a shame that for nearly two decades Kool & the Gang has been relegated to the oldies section, known more for "Celebration" than for the great tracks they had created before or for the music that they still had in them.  So it is particularly satisfying to hear them having fun again and sounding wonderful two decades after being written off by radio.  Still Kool is solid front-to-back and is the very welcome return of a great band.

By Chris Rizik

 
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