Listening to No Beginning and No End, the new recording by singer José James, you are going to feel and you are going to move. It’s a modern soul album that comes from both hip hop and jazz, and it deserves to climb the charts and have critical acclaim. How often does that happen?
No Beginning and No End puts everything together for the 35 year-old James—a recording that is sexy, hip, engrossing, and eclectic without being unfocused. Jazz may be there in some of the singer’s phrasing and tonal control, in the slick piano work by Robert Glasper or Kris Bowers, or in the pocket-funky horn parts, but mainly this is a set that hits you square in gut or the ass or the heart. It’s slippery and funky and ready to move you several ways.
The album opens in spare joy with just cracking backbeat drums, percussion, then James almost whispering his lines (“I won’t stay if you wanna go / I can’t wait for it any more / In the time that I used to know / It’s gone away like a river flow / It’s all over all over all over . . . your body”) with just a trickle of electric piano and then hip horn jabs. The mood of No Beginning and No End is clear—intimate, soulful, direct to the groin but also catching the ear. The percussion grooves but it also clatters and unspools in places, moving into abstract patterns sound like avant-hip-hop. And the tune ends with the horns taking over with a trumpet solo. Smooth but not slick, easy on the ears but palpably different.
The truth is, there are too many highlights here to cover in one review. You won’t be able to get enough of “Do You Feel”, a James tune with a killer gospel groove that is carried by Kris Bowers on acoustic piano, whose long solo is both direct as a blues statement and flashy like jazz. On this one, James lets his voice soar, wide open at the throat and rich as Sinatra. “Vanguard”, co-written with Robert Glasper, is propelled brilliantly by Glasper’s drummer Chris Dave, smooth but off-kilter a bit. “Make It Right” was composed with bassist Pino Palladino, who also produced much of the album, and it feels like a glorious series of syncopations that never get old. The title track is a slow-soul love song that finds James singing his own harmony vocals against a very spare background. It is hypnotic.
It’s right that No Beginning and No End ends with the song “Tomorrow”. First, it’s a love song, and this is a recording to love. But the song also links your ears back to James as a jazz singer—he is accompanied here only by piano and a small string group playing a complex chamber arrangement that embraces his vocal perfectly.
But more to the point, No Beginning and No End well ought to be tomorrow. This is the best, most sincere, most skillful piece of pop music making you are going to hear in 2013. It reaches backward for some of its sounds, but it moves forward too, fusing hip-hop and jazz and classic rhythm-and-blues. I dare say: It points the way.
Read the whole review here: José James: No Beginning and No End