Lil John Roberts - The Heartbeat

Lil John Roberts
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Drummer Lil’ John Roberts came to the name of his debut album as a lead artist through the power of suggestion. In short, Roberts mentioned to another artist that he needed a name for his upcoming album and the drummer’s musical comrade suggested the name The Heartbeat. Roberts felt ownership of that name because that is what some of his fellow musicians called him.

Drummer Lil’ John Roberts came to the name of his debut album as a lead artist through the power of suggestion. In short, Roberts mentioned to another artist that he needed a name for his upcoming album and the drummer’s musical comrade suggested the name The Heartbeat. Roberts felt ownership of that name because that is what some of his fellow musicians called him.

As a drummer, Roberts served as the timekeeper for the bands with which he played. Drummers can get lost sitting in the rear of the stage where they see all of those giant personalities singing, playing the piano, guitar or saxophone. However, the Roberts’ nickname showed where he stood with his musical friends. And if there is one thing that listeners will learn when listening to The Heartbeat, it’s that Roberts has a lot of friends. Roberts got those friends the old fashioned way – he earned them by way of being a go to drummer in the studio, on television and in bands.

You could kill a lot of trees listing all of the people for whom Roberts occupied the drummer’s chair, so it’s more efficient just to name genres. Roberts performed for R&B, straight ahead and contemporary jazz, hip hop, blues, gospel and pop artists. It’s very likely that Roberts’ name is listed on a CD in many a SoulTrackers’ music collection.

Roberts brings those years of experience to The Heartbeat. In that regard, Roberts has something in common with other jazz geniuses such as Norman Connors, Quincy Jones, George Duke and Robert Glasper who are also fluent in the languages of R&B, hip-hop and pop. The late George Duke turned out to be one of Roberts’ friends, and he added his signature keyboard creativity to a tune named “In A Duke Kinda Way.” The mid-tempo number features the classic Duke fusion of jazz tinged funk, or would it be more correct to call it funk tinged jazz. Either way, Roberts provides the steady drum (heart)beat that becomes the springboard for Duke’s creative flights of fancy.

The album opens with a vocal collaboration of four of the most unique and recognizable voices among hard-core lovers of soul. The jump funky “Space” brings together Eric Roberson, Anthony David, Musiq Soulchild and Mint Condition’s Stokley Williams. The musical arrangement moves through jazz improv, funk, soul and hip-hop in sync with the vocal stylings of the four singers.

The next track, “Gimme Sumthin’” is 1980s funk rock tinged number that sounds like something Prince could have produced for Shelia E. or Vanity 6. In a moment of inspiration, Roberts tapped Ashley Tamar Davis. Davis is a vocalist qualified to sing a Prince inspired dance number. The Purple One had his eye on Davis back when was climbing the rough side of fame’s mountain with a Houston based group that would eventually become Destiny’s Child. So, between Prince and Beyonce, Davis knows how to handle a tune that gets rumps moving.

The spoken word piece “Real Love” brings a percussive neo-soul vibe to The Heartbeat. When I first heard this joint, I initially thought that the poet was Jill Scott, which made sense considering that Roberts and Scott were engaged. It turns out that Ursula Rucker, another Philly based singer and poet, was the artist spitting on that track.

“Real Love” precedes what is one of my personal favorites on The Heartbeat – “Closer to the Source,” a swinging Latin styled collaboration that includes vocalist Kipper Jones and Snarky Puppy. Fans of old school hip-hop will find a lot of like about “Get Right,” a track some throwback turntable work by DJ Sol Messiah and the authoritative and precise flow of rapper Sa-Roc.

Roberts and company cover a lot of ground on The Heartbeat, and that’s always a risky proposition in a market that wants artists to grab ahold to one genre and not let go. And if there is one quibble to be made with The Heartbeat it’s that 18 tracks might be a bit too long, but I struggled to decide which two or three songs to cut. The Heartbeat might be heavy, but there ain’t a whole lot of fat. Strongly Recommended.

By Howard Dukes

 

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