There may be no more exciting genre in music right now than alt-R&B. Artists ranging from Frank Ocean and Sampha, to Miguel and Gallant, to SZA and Solange are deconstructing the traditional pop-R&B formula in favor of something more atmospheric and moody—where feel is prioritized above the hook, and instrumentation over production.
Enter Kenneth Whalum. The former touring and studio saxophonist for JAY-Z, John Legend, D’Angelo, and Frank Ocean (and nephew to Grammy award-winning saxophonist Kirk Whalum) has stepped out into the spotlight with his first collection of original compositions that primarily feature him singing, not playing sax. On Broken Land, eight moody, layered tracks blend jazz, hip-hop, folk and electronic music into something unified and striking.
“Ghost Town” is an eerie and addicting tune. A classic hip-hop beat mellows to mid-tempo while a guitarist plucks with reverb and delay as Whalum’s vocals drone on in some half-awake dirge. On “Empty,” Whalum’s high falsetto teeters above a faltering drum beat. It’s the soundtrack to a carnival ride about to fall off the tracks but the listener can’t look away. On “Might Not Be OK (feat. Big K.R.I.T),” simple, somber piano chords provide a backdrop for the album’s most transparent and heaviest message, a lament on living with police brutality in America.
Behind the Setlist spoke with Whalum about the making and writing of Broken Land, his history as a supporting saxophonist for major artists, and his future as a full-time solo artist. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
JAY-Z just released his music video for “Bam.” Do you ever get used to hearing your sax on these monumental records?
I don’t really think about it anymore. I’ve been doing it so long, you know? It’s great, though. I love Jay. I’m definitely excited. I mean, that shit is killer. But I’m not over the top about it. Years ago, when [JAY-Z’s] “Roc Boys” came out, I was like, OH SHIT. This is crazy.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful. I’m excited. [JAY-Z] is one of the greatest artists of all time, one of my favorites. That song is something that will live forever.
But now you’re pursuing your music full time.
Yeah, definitely. I don’t plan on going back to the sidelines. I’m just focusing on this.
You love to sing, play the sax and piano, write original music. How did you find yourself pegged as the “sax guy?”
I started playing music as a kid drummer in my dad’s church [Mount Olivet Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee]. But at school, the day I showed up for band class, the teacher asked us all what we wanted to play. She went down the roll and when she got to me and saw my last name [accomplished saxophonist Kirk Whalum is Kenneth’s uncle], she slammed me on the back and said, “You’re playin’ sax!” So I just went with it and it become something I enjoyed. I realized I could do it as a career, and I stuck with it and tried to be the best I could be. But when it came to making my own music and telling my own stories, I wanted to be able to use my words and sing.
I find it interesting how little sax is actually on the album. Did you purposely have to restrain yourself or was it natural to move in a different direction?
I didn’t want to play sax on it that much, anyway. I just wanted to use it if it was appropriate, you know. I wanted to be able to sing these songs. That’s what I really love doing. I want to be intentional about being confident in my songs, not relying on the sax in any way.
Did you also play the 12-string guitar on “Don’t Look Back?”
That was my man, Hod David. He does all the Maxwell stuff. My man! I had him come in and play that 12-string, because I’m actually a big Fleet Foxes fan. Mumford, too. I love that sound. I wanted to make music I actually enjoyed. Period.
That’s funny you mention Fleet Foxes as a big influence, because I interviewed [R&B artist] R.LUM.R and he said the same thing. Is there also some Radiohead influence?
Thom Yorke is a big influence, the way he might say five words and then stop for two bars, or three bars or four bars. I love that. It gives the listener a chance to contemplate while listening to the music. I tried to do that on “Ghost Town.” For the listener, the song becomes more of an interactive experience. You get a chance to ask yourself questions as you listen.
I also wanted to ask about “Empty.” What’s the story there?
“Empty” came from being in this place of a gray area in a relationship, when people feel like they need to say something or share something but they don’t. At the end of the day, the eyes always tell what the mouth doesn’t. Those things you want to share, the mistakes, everything that happens over time. I wanted to make a song that was the audio for what the eyes were saying. A soundtrack to that.
I’m curious about the title of the record, Broken Land.
The concept originally came out of Dismaland, [Banksy’s dystopian riff on Disneyland], where all the rides are broken down, the fountain is muddy, the lights are out on the sign. It represented the ruins. The park isn’t necessarily closed, but it’s broken down. So that’s kinda where it came from.
And it’s obviously an apt metaphor for today’s society. Songs like “Might Not Be OK” lament America’s police brutality epidemic. Politically, did the Trump transition influence that song or any others?
Trump didn’t necessarily influence anything. [“Might Not Be OK”] just legitimately has to deal with the somberness, the mode that people go into when one of these tragedies happens. It’s a sad time. Your hope and your faith is tested. That song was born from that freeze-frame of feeling. It was important for me to express that.
“That song was born from that freeze-frame of feeling. It was important for me to express that.”
I saw that dashcam video of Philando Castile’s murder. The police officer is acquitted and you’re angry, but then you watch the video and you’re left with no words. By chance, after watching that video, I listened to “Might Not Be OK.” I’m not sure if it helped me process, but it definitely helped me embrace what I was feeling.
Totally. That was the point. Again, it’s that thing. You should feel certain things. We’re not supposed to run towards the happy times and then act like we’re not supposed to experience the bad times. A good friend of mine once told me, ‘You should feel like shit when you fail.” You know what I’m saying? I mean, what else were you expecting? So in that same line of thinking, you should feel anger when you’re disappointed in your heart and your soul. That’s the only way to live.
Turning back to the record, I’ve always liked albums with only eight songs. Not many artists cap themselves at eight, and it’s a bummer because I think it’s such a perfect number. Longer than an EP, but not as demanding as an LP. Any strategy there or is that just where the music stopped?
Nah, it just stopped there. I knew I didn’t want it to be too long, based on my own mind and my ability to consume music. I thought that was an amount that was right. I didn’t have a number in mind, though. That’s just where the flow stopped.
Will there be a tour?
A tour in the fall. New York, L.A., Chicago. Memphis, because that’s where I’m from. Hopefully, London and Berlin. Probably 12-15 cities altogether.
Throw in Seattle and I’ll see you there.
Sounds good. I love Seattle. That’s one of my favorite parts of the country.