Esperanza Spalding: Emily’s D+Evolution

A jazz prodigy’s prog-rock opera about love and identity

Credit: Holly Andres

Talented jazz musician Esperanza Spalding is best known for snatching the Best New Artist Grammy from the clutches of a young Justin Bieber back in 2012. That year's experiment, Radio Music Society, transmuted the textures of neo-soul through tricky changes and unlikely arrangements – avant-garde, yes, but ultimately as welcoming as pop music. Follow-up Emily's D+Evolution is a far more ambitious and thornier affair. The lyrics, flowing in disjunctive clusters, are about deleted narratives, glass ceilings and dreams deferred – ultimately a complex, funky prog-rock concept opera about love and identity. "Just keep riding ’til your wonder stops," she sings on "Elevate or Operate," boot straps up around your neck in case the thing drops." The track is part hard bop and part Captain Beefheart, a protest cry wrapped in a sea of confusion. Songs like "Good Lava" and "Earth to Heaven" revel in the weird angles of Nineties alterna-heavy bands like Shudder to Think and Polvo, while "Rest in Pleasure" turns the breathy pulse of Laurie Anderson's "O Superman" into a swirling sex jam. By album's end, the narrative clearly ends in triumph: a chant of "Funk the fear, live your life" and a cover of Veruca Salt from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory brattily demanding, "I Want It Now". It’s a scorching art-pop statement.