On the opening track of Sketches of My Culture, “The Journey,” Harvard professor Cornel West follows the “guttural cries” of the middle passage to the musical “joy” — from gospel to hip hop — that has sustained African-Americans through continued racist encounters. Amid spoken-word segments and musical thumbnails, West’s voice, a preacheresque combo of upright gentleman and gravely spirit, holds the record together as his accomplices from 4BMWMB, Inc. (4 Black Men Who Mean Business, Inc.) supply the album’s musical production.
But Sketches, though it paints with the conceptual breadth of black culture in America, fails musically because it does not engage with the most current trends in black music. Instead of the visceral pounding and brutal honesty of contemporary hip hop, there is the canned caricature of a now old-school moralism provided by Waynee Wayne (who?) in “Elevate Your View.” Instead of the sampled cacophony of the digital age, Sketches lies comfortable in synth-pop production, an aesthetic that seems more adequate in dating West’s “quiet storm” age group than forwarding his arguments about the drama of black history and culture.
Only in “Frontline (Interlude),” where West connects American racism with working people, corporate power and the reality of living in East Timor over a late-night piano arrangement, does a “sketch” of a possible future music that suits West’s smooth yet stern philosophical ramblings begin to shape itself.
Related review: Carleton S. Gholz thinks Nuyorican poet and American recording artist Saul Williams' new record works on all the levels that Cornel West’s opus does not.
E-mail Carleton S. Gholz at firstname.lastname@example.org.