REVIEW: Boulevards – Groove!

Many a pop pretender has cruised to mainstream success on the back of soggy, half-baked excuses for funk music. But we can add a new name to those with a licence to freak: Boulevards, the smooth-talking North Carolina newcomer whose debut album, Groove!, is a funk shindig that puts many of his mainstream pop contemporaries to shame.

Boulevards, real name Jamil Rashad, isn’t out to rewrite the rulebook with this record. This is an out-and-out funk album all about getting up on the dance floor, before getting down in the bedroom. Central to this vibe are the instrumentals: a selection of charged 70s- and 80s-style funk jams – in the vein of Prince, Rick James and Chic – that will have you stomping and stepping about at high speed, and working up plenty of friction as you do so.

Initially, Boulevards’s posturing comes across as uncharismatic, his risqué talk stubbing like poor chat up lines. But, like Dornik’s fantastic self-titled 2015 debut, Groove! hits its stride after a fair number of listens, when you are more in tune with its frequency and its frisky host.

Once you do, Groove! becomes one those albums that makes you feel like a boss whether you’re on the pull or simply popping out to the chippy. It’s there in the loose, head-bopping bassline of Got to Go. The infusion of quick-paced bass and sparky synths on Running Back is tailor-made for fancy footwork. And in the heated pulse of Up on Your Love, which proves to be perhaps the album’s most infectious moment, with the hook: “Only a fool would give up on your love / I can’t wait to get up on your love”.

On the back of these sublime examples, Boulevards’s ambition of projecting the old-school cool of legends, albeit with a contemporary trim, seems strong. But, compared to the indispensable live sound, and especially the delivery of these funk pioneers, who speak their words with crisp, unhurried confidence, is not easy to imitate, Boulevards is in too much of a rush to hit it.

In his slower moments – such as the sensitive Cold Call, whose beat is a shade away from The Message by Grandmaster Flash – Boulevards feels musical closer to the likes of Jason Derulo and Justin Timberlake. Still, the lewd, urban R&B of Love and Dance and Weeknd-esque The Spot feel like anthems just wait to pop off.

Making a modern funk album is no mean feat. Pharrell’s G I R L paled next to the likes of MFSB or the Meters. Olly Murs’s attempts at Earth, Wind & Fire are no substitute for the originals. Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special was a commendable mainstream effort, but its cues from the past are many. Groove! borrows plenty, too. But, track for track, Boulevards’s debut out freaks all these modern examples with songs that maintain a consistent vibe throughout much of its length. Pop pretenders should take note, because this newcomer can teach them a thing or two about freaking out.

Aaron Lee

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Boulevards - Groove!
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