To fully feel the impact of this review, you have to understand I have the musical taste of an unrepentant hipster.
Mind you, I do not spend my days bouncing from coffee shop to coffee shop, haranguing uninterested people with some absurd claim that the “last great album” was recorded in 1996. I keep my musical sensibilities contained to my record collection (hipster enough for you yet?) which is dominated by artists whose careers came to a close long before I discovered their work.
That is why I was shocked when I heard Black Pumas play during “Celebrating America,” the inauguration night special which brought together some of music’s biggest stars to celebrate the beginning of Joe Biden’s presidency.
The band was not even a minute into their hit song “Colors,” a soulful groove nominated for two Grammy Awards in 2020, when I began furiously searching online for information on this group which had somehow eluded me. By the end of the night, I had listened to the entirety of their 2019 self-titled debut album and I was left with a sense of awe usually reserved for the ‘60s and ‘70s acts dominating my playlists.
Studying the history and influences of the band’s two constant members, singer-guitarist Eric Burton and guitarist-producer Adrian Quesada, reveals the reason for my immediate adoration.
Burton, who is 13 years Quesada’s junior, grew up in a religious household, explaining the gospel-inflected vocals which dot some of the album’s tracks. The album’s overarching soul vibe began with Quesada, who acquainted his singer with artists like Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye.
It is also thanks to Quesada, an experienced musician who had already won a Grammy with Latin funk ensemble Grupo Fantasma before forming Black Pumas, that the final product sounds polished — a rarity for debut releases.
Black Pumas’ most successful tunes are the ones marrying the duo’s musical backgrounds. “Colors” pairs Quesada’s more vintage stylings — a wavy guitar and soulful backing vocals — with Burton’s vibrant lyrics. Another standout is “Fire,” which sees a surfer-like guitar riff fade into a horn sound befitting a Motown recording.
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While it is clear Black Pumas found great inspiration in the soul sounds of the past, what sets the group apart is they do not stagnate in nostalgia. Perhaps this is due to their varied interests. As mentioned before, Quesada and Burton have backgrounds outside of soul, meaning they are both comfortable injecting their own sounds into the genre. This willingness to blend genres is simply not found in dedicated “revival bands.”
But this alone does not explain how the band was able to transcend its roots. What makes “Black Pumas” a truly special album is the personal dynamic of the men behind the music.
Inherent in the age gap between Quesada and Burton are a series of pairings — new arrival with experienced musician, raw vocals with smooth production, contemporary lyrics with vintage sound — and are the hallmarks of their shared sound.
These combinations are what afford Black Pumas the rare ability to reach into the musical past and emerge with a sound as fresh and new as anything being released today.