The title of Esperanza Spalding’s fourth album, Radio Music Society, may suggest that it’s the Grammy-endorsed jazz singer’s bid for pop-crossover success, but Spalding’s music is still a hard sell. Contemporary jazz remains a fairly small niche market, and Spalding, whose musical influences include both hip-hop and traditional blues, may be better equipped than most of her peers to appeal to the masses—or, at the very least, the coffeehouse demo. But while there’s an undeniable polish to Radio Music Society, and some of the songs flirt with more conventional pop structures, the frequent improvisational asides and amelodic runs keep the album from being readily accessible.
This isn’t a case of aping Norah Jones’s shtick of throwing in a handful of unobtrusive jazz flourishes into otherwise straightforward pop songs. “Hold on Me,” the only song on the album with a running time that even approximates radio-friendliness, finds Spalding elongating her vocal phrasing throughout the refrain until her final held note bleeds seamlessly into the brass section’s pickup. It’s a lovely moment in and of itself, but it also keeps the song from having any kind of proper hook. The album’s official lead single, “Black Gold,” boasts multiple tempo shifts that are well-matched to its wide-ranging melody, but the lengthy instrumental passages and the deliberate use of repetition undermine its commercial appeal.
It’s this conflicted sense of purpose that ultimately mars Radio Music Society. As gifted a performer and arranger as Spalding may be, she doesn’t commit fully to either a full-on pop route or to a polished jazz approach, so the album doesn’t really work as a satisfying example of either style. “This song’s the one,” Spalding exclaims on opener “Radio Song,” but it doesn’t serve as a mission statement so much as it lays bare the problems with the hour of music that follows it. “Radio Song” is competent but unremarkable, and Spalding spends nearly seven minutes layering new variations on its theme, which is far more than either the melody or the lyrical conceit can really support. “Vague Suspicions” fares even worse, a tedious dirge that does nothing to enliven its rote impressionistic lyrics.
Whether or not the album would play more strongly to jazz devotees is debatable (“I Can’t Help It” and “Cinnamon Tree” don’t offer anything structurally that Wynton Marsalis hasn’t already done countless times over, so purists may or may not be all that impressed), but it just doesn’t scan as a strong pop album either. Radio Music Society makes it clear that Spalding’s a fine, intuitive singer and a natural bandleader, and she’s a once-in-a-generation performer with her signature upright bass. She’s the kind of artist whose skills absolutely merit a wide audience, but Radio Music Society proves that she hasn’t quite figured out how to capture one.