“Dance to the High Life” is a prime example of the ways in which producer Nicky Lars’ dense debut album Musica Negra feels at once grounded and immensely cerebral. Drawing from from hip-hop and Afro-Caribbean rhythms, the song opens with a syncopated keyboard melody and later incorporates an airy flute, kick drum and high hat arrangement. What it really feels like is loose improvisation, like freedom. It is one of the closest things to a straightforward “beat” on the entire album. Exactly as the title suggests, the influx of all the instruments backed by a vocal chant breath a sense of life and purpose to Lars’ music. Dance to the high life.
The Parisian artist’s music evokes a sense of elation. You can hear the beauty of self expression and thoughtful introspection manifested through sound. Over the course of 20 songs, Lars travels through Africa, the Caribbean, the dance clubs of Paris and the streets of New York, bridging these rich musical cultures into to a rich aural patchwork.
Lars’ music is functioning as a musical utopia, a term music scholar Josh Kun calls “audiotopia” to describe the way music transcends physical space and allows the listener to build new meanings from seemingly incompatible cultures across the globe.
British rapper Ty proclaims “One Day” in repetition, with the same sense of purpose that Nas needed “One Mic” to make a political attempt to fight oppression. Just a few tracks later on “Bom Dia,” Lars re-imagines an Old Portuguese phrase “bon dis vosco,” meaning “good day.” Nas in New York and Lars in Paris, over 15 years apart, still really only need one thing; to play one more piece of music, for one more day.
When we bridge space and time through music, a theme surrounding a struggle for survival also emerges: a struggle for freedom. The same struggle wherein African American slaves used music as a means of survival and hope, whether it was imitating the ‘ballroom’ during the cakewalk or through spiritual songs.
While Music Negra is a dense album that goes back to African roots in the clave, or 80s dance music on the keyboards, it is also a powerful piece of art which merges these dispersed sounds together seemlessly with soul, jazz and hip-hop. The overall effect is that of a lush landscape where the listener is simultaneously cradled in a warm glow while being challenged to form critical social understandings of the relationships between genres and cultures.