Known primarily for his involvement in the all-time great hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, Ali Shaheed Muhammad has cemented himself as a crusader of soul. As a producer, his propensity towards strong basslines and tight drums is a firm reminder of the jazz-flavored principles upon which hip-hop was founded. As for his emcee skills, Muhammad has also mastered his craft. He spits sharp, yet tasteful flows that only help to illuminate the already smooth-as-butter production. With the help of instrumentalist and composer Adrian Younge, Muhammad has dived further into the world of jazz. It is quite the experiment for Muhammad, but with three decades of success under his belt, he has absolutely nothing to be afraid of. He has established himself as a legend, so everything at this point is just a bonus to his career. And listeners have quite a bonus with this record.
With such an impressive skill set at his hands, it would be easy for Muhammad to merely coast and keep riding what has gotten him to this point. In the years that have followed Tribe’s initial and now final goodbye, Muhammad has done anything but coast; instead, he is trying to expand his skill set even further. He’s taking the cold atmospheres and haunting moods of his hip-hop beats and creating something completely new by adding fleshed out percussion, woodwind and vocal arrangements.
The track “Black Beacon” is a beautiful and breezy way to start the record. The minimal, yet poignant vibraphone work coupled with the infectiously melodic woodwind refrains immediately catch the listener’s ear. The layering on this track is impressive when compared to Muhammad’s past work. The open environment of the track lets each performer get their time to shine which is truly a wonderful surprise.
“It’s You” begins with a decrepit sounding jam between the brush-stroke drum kit, guitar, bass and woodwinds. This section really seemed a bit meddling at first, but it serves as a perfect introduction to the song. The jam sets the mood of the song and ultimately creates a lot of smoke that continually rises up until…poof: it is no longer there. Only when the smooth and treble-laden guitar part comes in does one truly appreciate the atmosphere shaped on that introduction. As for the rest of the song, featured artist Raphael Saadiq steals the show. He doesn’t overuse his voice like many singers, instead his laid-back and mid-timbre vocal performance floats perfectly over the composition, allowing both entities to shine.
“Questions,” which was originally featured on Kendrick Lamar’s “Untitled 06,” is another album highlight. The infectious hook and beautiful, layered strings attach to the listener’s ears with immense fervor. “Better Endeavor” and “Mission” are also standouts due to their downright chunky basslines. “Dans Un Moment D’errance” and “Together Again” stick out similarly due to their exceptional keyboard work. Lastly, “Ravens” ends the album turning the tension up to ten. The frantic pace of the track, combined with the massive sounding strings in the back, is sure to entrance the listener until the album abruptly ends.
That final sequence could very well be a polarizing choice, but with an album as calculated as this, perhaps it is appropriate for everything to dissipate all at once. After all, The Midnight Hour looks and sounds like a late-night jazz lounge. And while a jazz lounge is a place of great love and respect, it also is a place that was built on improvisation and spontaneity. And because of that, on The Midnight Hour, Muhammad and Younge not only show that they understand the theory and compositional style of jazz, but that they also understand the very principles on which jazz was built. Because of this, they have proven that they no longer deserve to be pigeonholed into ’90s hip-hop nostalgia. They deserve to be respected as jazz artists.