Imani Wj Wright – Live At The Kennedy Center – Album Review
I feel like I’ve run at least a couple of laps around my brain cells trying to jog my memory into place and recall whether or not I’ve actually reviewed a live record of any kind before. I’ve posted up a ton of live vids…and obviously back when the world was fully open for business I was out there at a ton of shows, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with many of you out in the crowd there with me; you factor in all the live recordings in my own personal collection & that I’ve heard over the years…you get where I’m coming from I’m sure – it’s hard to keep it all straight and organized in the giant file inside my head. All that being said, I suppose the ultimate point being made is that it’s actually much rarer to find a live record in the independent scene than people might think or assume, at least in comparison to the mainstream. So kudos to Imani Wj Wright…it’s yet another winning idea he’s put to good use early on into his career; the material will stand out for its own reasons of course, but this record does by nature of its live recording as well. It’s a solid move, and a great reflection of his artist he’s become over time.
So “How Ya’ll Feelin’!?” out there? Lovin’ life in quarantine & equally excited as I am to remember what a LIVE show sounds like? Let’s do this! Imani Wj Wright’s servin’ it up Live At The Kennedy Center…
With a quick intro to the band and to the vibe, Imani Wj Wright and his crew of surrounding talent launch into the first full cut called “To The Land,” which is one of the tracks in this live set I hadn’t heard in a studio recording yet. As far as I can tell from the credits, it’s also the only cut on the record that officially features the entire lineup of featured musicians on this record at once, with Muammar Muhammad on guitar, 4Tae on the trombone, Robert Wooden III on drums, and Kay L.A. backing up Imani on the mic in the first song. Guitar notes sliding & sparkling, cymbals lightly crashing & hi-hats tickin’ along, “To The Land” starts the experience with fresh, inspired, hybrid sound that glides in the space between soul and Hip-Hop. Imani comes out swinging with an electrifying performance, Kay backs him up right on-point, and 4Tae adds serious flavor into the music right off the bat with the addition of trombone in the mix for y’all to enjoy. “To The Land” immediate displays the versatility and dynamics found in the music of Imani Wj Wright and sets the standard for what’s to follow; essentially, if you dig on what you find on this first track, your ears have virtually no excuse for not enjoying the rest.
The next cut brings us back to his 2017 record called Envious Affection, with a live rendition of “Why Should I?” that absolutely hits the mark. To begin with, I’d put this up there with some of my favorite cuts from Imani Wj Wright’s catalog of tunes…but full props to the way the humble spark of melody goes from its seed to full bloom in the live version here. The music has remarkable amounts of personality to it – and of course when it comes to the main star of the show, personality is never on short supply there either. Muammar is straight-up magic in the way he plays this song and deserves a large portion of the credit for why this whole melody connects as strongly as it does – but all-in-all, “Why Should I?” has always been a stellar highlight in Wj Wright’s catalog and it’s definitely great to see it showing up in his live sets. Believe it or not, as far as this record is concerned, “Why Should I?” is actually one of the oldest cuts on the album, despite it only being around for a couple years now. I’ve been reviewing Imani’s music for longer than Envious Affection has been out – and honestly, it was just about equally surprising to see what DIDN’T make this set-list of songs as what DID. It speaks a lot to the amount of material Imani has to work with now, and the quality of his current stuff; he’s always been creating unique, sincere, and sentimentally soulful songs that connect…I can’t imagine it’d be easy to pare it all down to a tight ten cuts while also including a bunch of new tunes we haven’t heard yet. Space is limited for sure, but he’s chosen wisely – “Why Should I?” is without question a quality tune and it possesses such a beautifully inviting vibe at all times – this live version has all the humble sweetness it needs to make the magic we wanna hear…it might be an older tune, but this is proof it holds up strong.
To be fair to the majority of the independent music-scene, the reason that not too many live albums get made or recognized when they do, is simply because the quality isn’t there in 99% of the cases. Or at least, that’s typically been the case…I think we’re slowly seeing that start to change, so let’s say 97% right now to be as fair as possible…but you get the idea. We can’t all be playin’ Live At The Kennedy Center, you feel me? But even in cases that I’ve found myself in, where I’ve attended a live show and got access from a rad sound-guy to a couple of lines out from the soundboard for an official recording…even in those moments, you’re still at the mercy of the dude who’s mixing it. A lot has to go right for the clarity you’re looking for in a recording that’ll hold up – and when you hear how crystal clear this album is on songs like “Lately” and how well the mix has come out for this whole lineup overall, you gotta dig how Live At The Kennedy Center plays with the quality of a studio album, 100%. “Lately” was originally reviewed here at our pages as a collaboration between Muammar Muhammad and Imani back in late 2019…it was a fantastic song then…and it remains one now in this live version. You’ll appreciate the layout on this record and how it ramps-up at the beginning, and slowly descends into subtly soulful songs and the album’s quiestest/quaintest moments in the combination of “Lately” and “StandStill” back-to-back – and you’ll dig how the record will accelerate forward from there too. “Lately” has a wonderfully chill atmosphere, even while Imani is singing about moments of uncertainty and the rockiness of relationships…and when the energy increases around him, he shifts gears with ease, in perfect tandem with the music. It’s the longest cut on the record by nearly ninety seconds, but “Lately” is a real moment & mood of its own that always satisfies through its insatiably smooth sound.
Taking a moment for himself in the most isolated & intimate cut on the record, Imani Wj Wright goes solo on “StandStill,” with his soulful & stylistic voice accompanied only by the piano. Not only did I feel like he put in a noteworthy performance into the song, but also in the layout of a concert situation, you can fully appreciate how this is that moment where the lights in the house go down, you’ve just got the spotlight on Imani, and you probably can’t even hear a single breath in the entire venue, because everyone’s listening with everything they’ve got. I’ve heard this guy go from his early recordings to commanding The Kennedy Center – solo in this particular moment, and only a few years later than when I first started listening to the man. It’s clear that Imani has evolved into the confident artist/performer we all knew he was destined to be; he controls the atmosphere perfectly on “StandStill” and has you hanging on every word & note from the piano. I’ve always loved the fact that Imani sings with an incredible amount of technique…but it’s always sounded completely his own; I don’t have the concrete facts, but it’s always seemed like he was self-taught & born to professionally execute. As a result – and I can say this with 100% certainty – no one else has sounded even close to Imani in the eight-plus years I’ve been writing here at sleepingbagstudios & reviewing independent tunes. That’s the kind of signature uniqueness that money can’t buy and teachers can’t teach…and clearly his approach, style, and sound has been catching on. You listen to a performance like he lays down on “StandStill” and you know why.
Muammar plays with such impressive character that my ears always dig it when the man’s in the mix. Like, listen to what he brings to “Zxyla” – it’s almost like he’s off in the corner jammin’ in his own world, but his guitar makes such an essential contribution to tunes like this one. Ultimately I got pretty attached to this cut…I think the music on this one really hit the mark and I absolutely love the way the whole song kinda drifts with dreamy sound on its way to the very end. As it slides into the two-minute mark, you can hear it pick up just a lil’ bit as the momentum continues to build, but rather than rush the process or the magic, Imani & his crew dial it back completely, and THEN proceed to build it all up again for ya. On the first couple spins, there’s no doubt that you anticipate an explosion of sound coming somewhere within the nearly five-minutes in length, but “Zxyla” never goes beyond the implication; instead, it ends up being quite the controlled, low-key moment that sparkles & shines with restraint. Piano plays a pretty significant role throughout this lineup of songs and definitely gets its moment to impress ya on “Zxyla” – it leads the way throughout the bulk of this tune, allowing the guitars & drums to chime in with creativity as it rolls on. In some ways, I feel like “Zxyla” is likely the song that’s going to have the toughest time standing out in this particular lineup by comparison to the rest…but I fully believe that’s much more due to the strength in the set-list than it is a comment on it being any weaker than the rest. “Zxyla” might not fight as hard for your attention, but it’s still another strong cut in the lineup of songs on Live At The Kennedy Center that’s well worth your time to listen to; there aren’t any real weak-points on this record, just cuts & moments that might stand out more to ya, which is natural.
So not only does “Zxyla” have one of my favorite endings to any song on this record, but right afterwards, Imani takes complete control of the m-i-c to drop bars into my favorite beginning, found on “She Laid (Like Them)” – this is where you hear that live vibe in full effect. Innovative, rhythmic, organic, and still with a solid dose of the avant-garde approach to Imani’s music that always adds value to the anti-typical nature of the songwriting, sound, and experience it all creates – “She Laid (Like Them)” keeps it loose but fully engaged and locked right into the magic of the moment. To me, a song like “She Laid (Like Them)” gives you a great idea of what it would be like to see Imani Wj Wright play live – BUT – it also still sounds like a song that actually being there to see would make all the difference in the world. All that being said, I’d be surprised if most people out there didn’t come out eventually feeling that “She Laid (Like Them)” was a real highlight in this set, even if you weren’t right there in the front row and only heard it in the confines of this recording. Kay L.A. is a massive highlight in the mix here for ya, providing a perfect layer of backing vocals that complements the lead from Imani and strengthens the overall melody of the main hooks with beautiful tone. They collectively wield versatility in this collaboration like the true asset it is and display a radiant array of dynamics that puts creative freedom, thought-provoking lyricism, and a noticeably jazzy & soulful combination that sounds stunningly organic. Obviously the effort and the work has been put in – you can hear the right-on-time movements they share as they chop it up and break it down around the 2:30 mark – but what you’ll really love about the sound of a song like “She Laid (Like Them)” is that it sounds so in the moment you’ll think they created every second you’ll hear right on the spot. Great energy & spirit in this song from beginning to end.
“So I Thought” is still one of the strongest cuts in Imani’s catalog in my opinion. I first heard this one back at the beginning of 2019 when we reviewed it here at sleepingbagstudios – and overall, I think that “So I Thought” is one of the better representations of the music that Wj Wright creates. Originally released as a single…I suppose that’s what I’m talking about…it’s got that sweetness & soulful allure to it that takes you right outta your world and into Imani’s. For anyone hearing his music for the first time, I’d imagine “So I Thought” would be a slam dunk of subtle vibes to invite you in to listen to more; he doesn’t overplay the main chorus & chord switches of this song, so much as go right with the flow like he’s Bruce Lee being water. That first time you hit the most major transition “So I Thought” makes, just past the ninety-second mark…I tell ya folks…it’s one of those moments that’s so strong, it could make the entire experience for a lot of listeners out there on the merit of that one part alone. Just so happens that the chill glide through “So I Thought” has a lot more in-store for ya…it’s a highly reliable tune that’s got the seal of approval by many out there already…but no lie, the most significant transition and mood-shift in the melody of this song as it heads into the chorus will make a massive impact, every single time.
The only spot on the record you might notice the struggle to maintain the grip on the mix comes in at the beginning of “Motherless Child” as it roars itself into place with a more aggressive opening, melody, and overall structure than any other song in the set. That kinda stuff can take ya by surprise when you’re at the boards, no matter how ready you might be for the moment – when the energy takes hold, things get amped up, and a band or artist starts surging into a statement song…let’s just say you can end up being surprised at where the levels end up from where they start. Nothing too extreme in that sense here, “Motherless Child” and its more rambunctious mix gets under control quickly and once it’s settled in, no issues from there. From the performance that comes with it, you can hear that this is indeed played like the statement cut in the catalog for sure – and it should be, it’s an all-out spectacular song. You’ll get a bonus live-studio cut on the record after this ends, but make no mistake, it’s clear that Imani ended this set Live At The Kennedy Center on “Motherless Child” and gives the entire song/experience that extra 10% the final moment of a concert deserves. I have always loved the masterful mix of drama and tension that “Motherless Child” comes with – and this live version really seems to go after that aspect with a more edgy approach to it than the song I remember experiencing back in mid-2019. I might have to roll tape to verify that for a fact, but that’s the way this new version is hitting me – and I mean, c’mon y’all – you can hear the applause happening like, at least a minute & a half before it’s even over, so you KNOW that something has gotta be goin’ seriously RIGHT when that happens, you feel me? The applause is highly warranted for the entire performance put into this night Live At The Kennedy Center…there’s no way you could listen to this record as a fan and not come to the conclusion that what you hear on a studio recording from Imani Wj Wright is excellent, but seeing him and the Swano crew live would be another experience altogether. The vibe throughout this whole lineup has been solid.
If the final live-studio track “Sometimes” didn’t come out as stylistically slick and smooth as it does, I’d have fully recommended that this set ended with its original lineup, on “Motherless Child” from The Kennedy Center. But here we are and facts are facts – it does have a different vibe than the rest of the set, but after such a definitive ending in “Motherless Child,” “Sometimes” also really feels like we’re getting an extra bonus for the real fans out there. I love the sound of the piano on this cut, I love the tone in Imani’s vocals…there’s pretty much nothing about “Sometimes” that I didn’t completely love when it came right down to it. Guided by an impressively subtle & rhythmic groove in the vocals, this last track seems to hit the mark 100% without even trying…I mean, obviously they are, but you get what I mean…Imani & 4Tae are working with a powerfully mesmerizing & captivatingly chill sound on “Sometimes.” It’s like the audible form of that mint that shows up to your dinner with the cheque – you get that last hit of sweetness before you gotta deal with the reality of the bill, but for one last perfect moment you get to forget it all and just enjoy yourself…that’s what “Sometimes” was for me. It shows up at the end of a set-list that could have easily stood on its own without it, which really does make it a bonus for ya. I say savor the moment…then repeat the experience all over again – it’s well worth it.
Listen to music from Imani Wj Wright at the official page at Spotify here: https://open.spotify.com/artist/3bRqSKk5wxTC56YOiIha83
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