The refreshing nostalgia of Silk Sonic

“Close the door, let me give you what you’ve been waiting for/ Baby I’ve got so much love to give/ I want to give it all to you.” 

These lyrics are carried by a smooth, crooning baritone as the simple melody glides on a steady, nearly funky beat. I was 13 and certaintly had no experience or authentic interest in love and sex was a intimdating mystery to be solved by adults.  But my mind was ensnared by the groovy elegance of the music. I’d never heard anything like it: powerful horn sections, moving between accentuating the melody or playing rhythmic phrases, flutes whistling in harmony with a slick guitar riff, loud and luscious strings soaring throughout the song. By the bridge my ears were elated under the barrage of what I can only describe as sonic euphoria. The 1978 hit song Close the Door by Teddy Pendergrass captures one of the sounds which defined 1970s music, that has come to be known as Philadelphia Soul. 

Dropping their first single as the R&B superduo Silk Sonic, Anderson Paak and Bruno Mars recreated this distinct sound but this century telling us to “Leave the Door Open ” and I once again experienced that submersion in sonic euphoria. After two more retro-laced singles, enthralling live performances and months of frustrated anticipation from a growing fanbase, last week the group released their nine-track album titled An Evening With Silk Sonic

The album is a meticulously crafted and spirited homage to what many consider the golden age of soul music. But the love held by Silk Sonic is not naive or too infatuated to overlook the musical limitations of the era or unironically recreate the melodrama of 70s showmanship one would catch on an episode of Soul Train or the cheesy aspects of romantic songs you’d see throughout a Barry White catalogue. Instead of producing dull parody, Paak and Mars use their talent and musical scholarship to repackage the best of what 1970s soul offered, pumping contemporary vitality into the album with lyricism, sound production, elements of hip-hop and a wise artistic self-awareness that is distinctly of our century.

The creative time travel epitomised by Silk Sonic is not an exceptional episode of retrospective. It is a salient feature of the 21st century. Television shows like Mad Men and Stranger Things, besides being well-constructed stories, were popular because they appealed to the American fondness for the idyllic conformity of the 1950s and quirkiness of the 1980s, which are living memories for many older millennials. With their 2018 music video for Walk It Talk It, hip-hop group Migos borrowed from the glittery aesthetics of Soul Train, rocking Afros and platform shoes to a trap beat. Charlie Puth and Meghan Trainor pumped out the doo-wop hit of 2015 titled Marvin Gaye. The song was shamed by critics and rightly so because it was souless mimickry of 1940s doo-wop, highlighting how musical throwbacks in and of themselves do not gaurantee a good song. 

How is an album that could have felt like corny imitation exploding in popularity with Boomers, Millennials and Gen Z kids? What is the difference between the gimmicks of Charlie Puth’s Marvin Gaye and the work released by Anderson Paak and Bruno Mars? In examining the music of Silk Sonic and its booming appeal — among both critics and wider audiences — we can gain valuable insights in obsession with nostalgia and the mounting dissatisfaction, emanating from listeners and even artists, with the current mainstream music industry. 

With our lives endlessly besieged by entertainment, some have argued that popular culture is sliding towards decay. Film critics and disgruntled movie goers point towards the rare creativity displayed in Hollywood, as studio executives are content to produce lazy reboots, formulaic rom coms and visually dazzling but narratively hollow action movies. Rap heads sneer at the vacuous lyricism of mumble rap and are concerned about the tireless embrace of materialism in congruence with the hypersexualisation of women within mainstream hip-hop. Others complain that pop music is afraid of innovation, vomiting up the same chord progressions or beats and creating music that may be catchy but reflects an age in which the artist is moulded through a social media laboratory and not through hard work in the recording studio. 

This discontent is heightened when people compare what they believe to be our current moment of stagnation to the explosion of musical ingenuity in the latter half of the 20th century. A post-war world which produced some of popular music’s unforgettable innovations: the psychedelic experimentation of The Beatles, the raw and rebellious energy of punk, hip-hops evolving lyrical and compositional complexity in the 1990s and early 2000s (exemplified by Notorious B.I.G and J Dilla) or the grand showmanship of legends such as James Brown, Prince, Freddie Mercury and Michael Jackson. 

Our disaffection with the present is partly grounded in material realities. American society, the central hub of global cultural production, is disorientated by tremendous financial and political precarity. Culture wars entrench seemingly insurmountable divisions among citizens, millennials rarely experience the financial security enjoyed by their parents as healthcare has become a luxury, wages are unable to meet the expenses of living, students are shackled to debt and capitalism’s inequality has transformed representative democracy into an oligarchy ruled by economic elites and their political servants. 

In the South African context our shallow knowledge of history and the visceral terror of unemployment, inequality and poverty make some citizens yearn for Thabo Mbeki’s presidency. And even some liberals and conservatives are so stunned by the present that they occasionally admit nostalgia for apartheid or weave apartheid apologetics.  

Within the music industry there is the observation that art has become a tortured slave to the profit incentive. In other words, instead of producers and artists being driven to compose in the pursuit of quality music, therefore encouraging experimentation and innovation, music is made and artists are tailored to be sold to the widest audience as easily consumable commodities. There is some truth to this observation. Reworking a quote by social theorist Theodore Adorno, one can note that “radio music no longer needs to present itself as art, the truth it is nothing but business”. The subversion of art to the interests of amassing profit can result in music which fears taking risks, the repetition of unexciting trends on the Top Billboard 100, music videos filled with semi-naked bodies and void of story telling or captivating cinematic qualities. The hypersexuality seen in some mainstream hip-hop results as a collision between sexist objectification and the fact that sexuality sells commodities. 

Drastic changes within the record industry only seem to magnify these troubling tendencies. Unstoppable piracy, the digitisation of sales, streaming platforms and the vast expanse of alternative music offered through the internet means that record studios are more desperate than ever to sell their music, no longer able to stack profits through conventional methods. The leviathan presence of social media has forced upcoming artists to ensure that they sell themselves through constant promotion across platforms, becoming more than musicians but evolving into brands which must continually cultivate an image in order to stay relevant and interesting to audiences. Beyonce is known for her reluctance and refusal to have interviews or do general promotion of her music because she believes that the art must speak for itself. 

Nostalgia is intoxicating and its opiate-like potency blurs our ability to accurately recollect the past. The profit motive has always subsumed the music industry, Record sales and radio play were  always a concern for legendary musicians and the studios which represented them. In our neoliberal age this incentive has been propelled to greater heights but we must not be under the illusion that no good popular music thrives under present conditions.

 Amy Winehouse’s discography contains emotionally raw and poetic songwriting which  easily rivals that of Fleetwood Mac. Adele’s vocal power, range and control (although stylistically different) is comparable to that of Whitney Houston and the singer has received praise from the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin. Kendrick Lamar has managed, through conceptual albums and the  experimental synthesising of genres, to raise the standards of hip-hop, being the first rap artist to receive a Pulitzer award usually given to classical musicians and jazz artists. 

Beyond the mainstream, now more than ever, through the democratisation of music production and the platform provided by the internet,  we have been gifted with a diverse landscape of music as a new generation of artists within RnB, house, jazz, AfroPop and indie rock progress their fields towards exciting horizons. One just has to broaden their perspective and palate to enjoy it. 

Silk Sonic’s adventurous nostalgia is not a testimony to older music being better but rather the artists offer a listening experience that is refreshing because it is so different to what popular ears have become accustomed to. There were numerous sub-genres within the wide umbrella of 70s soul and the group, with precision and zeal, took us on a tour of these musical touchstones.

 The tracks and accompanying music videos for Skate, Smoking out the Window and Leave the Door Open are an exploration of Philadelphia Soul, pioneered by the producers Kenneth Gamble, Leon Huff and the songwriter, Thom Bell. Through using the fundamentals of funk, dreamy lyrics of romance and epic heartbreak and the instrumentality of classical music, the hits of Philadelphia International Records and the three singles of Silk Sonic can be described as symphonic soul. 

The densely layered and diverse instrumentation (played live in studio and not digitally),  attention grabbing chord progressions, multiple modulations, pristinely clear harmonies of three to four parts and spring reverbs which adds an angelic echo to the guitar playing are elements of song production one probably won’t find on the radio. In music videos Silk’n Sonic adorns bell bottoms and synchronised dance choreography similar to the smooth steps of the Temptations, Stylistics and the Tramps. But with lyrics such as “This bitch got me payin’ her rent, payin’ for trips and the rap like If you smoke (what you smoke?) I got the haze (Purple Haze)/And if you’re hungry, girl, I got filets (woo-woo)” that provide a modern twist in their tribute to the Philadelphia sound. 

In the tracks Fly as Me and 777, as the robust percussion calls on the spirit of James Brown’s Superbad and the Chi-Lites You Are My Woman, Anderson Paak seamlessly combines gritty funk with charismatic, playfully narcissistic  rap verses that could massage the ears of any hip-hop lover in 2021. This infusion is understandable considering that funk was pivotal to the development of early rap music. Most notably through his prowess as a drummer, Anderson begs us to remember that complexity in a beat doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. 

After Last Night stands as the hidden gem of the album, starting as a sexy slow jam of desperate infatuation, combining the hypnotic synth playing of the Isley Brothers in Between the Sheets and a bassline which harkens back to Bootsy Collins I’d Rather Be With You. Bootsy Collins, a bassist invaluable to the evolution of funk, features on the album as the host of our evening with Silk Sonic. By the bridge the song has ballooned into a power ballad, with acrobatic ad libs by Bruno Mars and climatic key changes uplifted by what feels like a mass choir of voices. 

Finally the album concludes with Blast Off, which can be seen as the group’s interpretation of the cosmic atmosphere and spiritual feeling ignited by the music of Earth Wind and Fire, a band as important to music as Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd. Specifically the song feels like our generation’s answer to the EWF Can’t Hide Love version of  Bruno and Anderson build a tune that ascends into the cosmos on a staircase of seamless key changes and an assortment of layered harmonies that are a rarity in  pop music. 

Ultimately the album is a sweet reminder of what made soul music sonically exhilarating and emotionally enriching. It could be an invitation for current RnB artists to incorporate elements of the old into their new productions.  An Evening with Silk Sonic is good not because modern music is a desolate plain of mediocrity but rather because the album is a painstakingly crafted work, moulded by a collection of artists with a profound passion for what they do, who had the time alongside  the financial resources to execute this project.  Speaking on their process of songwriting, Kenneth Gamble once said, “We tried to write songs that people would relate to for years to come.” It may be premature to predict, but I would argue Anderson Paak and Bruno Mars have realised this objective in their exceptional project.

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Andile Zulu
Andile Zulu is a political essayist who runs the Born Free Blues blog.

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