This Is Not a Game

Why everyone should give Radio Music Society a listen.

Rarely, in the age of mp3 downloads and Spotify, does the concept of the album, unified by a single concept or set of concepts, make an appearance, but Radio Music Society is one such album.  Gone are the days when artists would create whole albums, with quality songs from beginning to end; gone, that is, until Esperanza Spalding arrived on the scene in 2006 and returned in 2011 with Chamber Music Society, for which she took home a Grammy.   As the first jazz artist to win the Grammy Award for Best New Artist, expectations were understandably high, but as usual, she fails to disappoint. Her latest album, Radio Music Society is likewise exciting and is perhaps her best work yet. It is the sort of album that makes one want to listen to the whole thing, start to finish, multiple times.

“Crowned and Kissed” is my favorite song on the album. I know that this is highly prejudiced, but I truly love this song. It’s about a relationship between a man and a woman in which the man has been carrying the weight of the world, the weight of the expectations heaped upon him and his responsibilities as the head of the household, and his mate entreats him to lay his burdens down and allow her to shoulder some of his burden. The lyrics read, “I know even the strongest man needs/Someone to hold him/Once you, carry the weight on the shoulder/And you, made a way for the future/Lay your burdens down/Don’t even make a sound, don’t worry about a thing/I’m here to love you/My kisses are your crown and I’m your queen/So now leave with me my king/I’m here to love you.” This song is evocative in that it calls to mind images of ancient kings, who, by day, would be out at battle and by night, would return home to find comfort in the arms of their wives. In this song, Spalding really creates a moving image of a strong woman who understands that even the strongest man needs someone to hold him.

“Smile Like That” is one of the most easily relatable songs on the album, because it is about an experience shared by all women, regardless of race and social class. In “Smile Like That”, Spalding sings about a woman noticing that another woman makes her man smile and she wonders how she can make him smile like that. This is perhaps the only song on the album that can be described as cute, the others evoking words like power, strength and pride.

The beauty of “Black Gold” lies in its social message about the worth of black Americans in today’s society. The message Spalding conveys in this song is one of pride – as she advises people to hold their heads high regardless of the situation and remember that they are descendants of African queens and kings, ancient men, powerful men, builders of civilizations. The video that was made for this song is, if possible, even better than the song itself, because it plays out a story of an educated black man, a strong loving father, who realizes that his two sons are not being taught any of their history in school and then takes it upon himself to teach his sons about the contributions that black Americans have made to society and introduce them to figures such as Sundiata Keita, Miriam Makeba, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu so that they understand the richness of their heritage.

Spalding uses “Land of the Free” to raise awareness of the injustices in our judicial system. Spalding does this by discussing the oft forgotten case of Cornelius Dupree who was declared innocent of a 1980 conviction for aggravated robbery, which was alleged to have been committed during a rape in 1979. He was paroled in July 2010, after serving 30 years of a 75-year prison sentence in Texas. Prosecutors cleared him of the crime after DNA testing proved that he had not committed the crime. Spalding sings, “Finally, they’ve exonerated Dupree but it cost him his parents and his wife, his home his life, in the “land of the free” – evidently five fifths an innocent man but the courts only saw three. He spent eleven thousand days locked away in the “land of the free”. In saying this, she calls attention to the stark contrast between the fact that America is considered, or at least, was considered, the “land of the free” and yet the American justice system is not infallible, occasionally sending innocent people to jail for decades.

“Vague Suspicions,” like “Land of the Free” is also a political song. It is about a Muslim man gunned down in the prime of his life because of “vague suspicions” stemming from the way he was dressed and the fact that he was kneeling by the side of the road to pray. This song is powerful in that Spalding makes a bold statement about the civilian causalities of war. Saying that they are “strangers with the same God”, Spalding brings attention to the people all around the world who die as a result of wars that may have very little to do with the actions of the individuals themselves. She sings “They are faceless numbers in the headlines we’ve all read/wrong strike leaves the teen civilians dead.”

“Radio Song,” the album’s titular song, is about a song that can sing to your soul, capable of uplifting you in times of darkness, a song you can’t help singing even if you don’t know the words. Spalding sings of a song that is “played to lift your spirits” and “words are speaking to you, as if they knew you” and claims that “this song’s the one.” Indeed it is.

“Cinnamon Tree” is a song about the earth, celebrating the beauty of cinnamon trees. This is perhaps the most poetic song on the album. This song has the quality of a playful love poem with lyrics, “I just think of one sterling conversation/with you and my cup is filled with new infusion/ And like you honesty/ In the all the sweet and chatter/Your taste, real prospective/ Aha, you give all that you are/And just keep on growing, your fragrance lives/ In all who love you/ Cinnamon tree.”

The album is also accompanied by eleven conceptual videos shot in different parts of the world, including New York, Portland and Barcelona. Each one of the eleven short films further express Spalding’s inspiration and story behind each track.

Powerful. Beautiful. Moving. These are words that keep reappearing when describing Radio Music Society; it is rumored that before deciding on Radio Music Society for the album’s title, she toyed with the idea of calling it “This Is Not a Game”, because of the fact that her songs carry the weight of the issues she is addressing. Each of these songs is inspired by something real to her and yet something magically relatable to all people. Whether the song is about having pride in yourself, about a social issue or simply about falling in love with someone, her songs are actually relevant and that makes them all the more special.

In addition to being multitalented, both classically trained in the cello and capable of singing in English, Spanish, and Portuguese, Spalding is also a modern-day Black American griot, sharing powerful stories through her music.

Whitney Lee ’14 (whitneylee@college) believes that this may be one of the most beautiful albums in existence.