With the release of his major-label debut Lift Your Spirit, Aloe Blacc moved and inspired audiences across the globe through his powerful fusion of soul, folk, R&B, and pop. Arriving in 2014, the Grammy Award-nominated album spanned from feel-good anthems like the platinum-selling single “The Man” to intensely charged tracks like Blacc’s acoustic version of “Wake Me Up”—the massive hit he sang and co-wrote for Swedish DJ Avicii, which topped the charts in more than 100 countries. Now at work on the follow-up to Lift Your Spirit, the L.A.-born rapper/singer/songwriter has expanded his emotional terrain to capture an even more personal element of the human experience.
“My goal for this next album is to continue with the aspirational songs I’ve been writing for a while now, but add a dimension that’s more focused on love and relationships,” says Blacc. “My own relationship with my family and my wife is so important to me, and I want these songs to give people the opportunity to celebrate the love in their life.”
On his latest single “Brooklyn in the Summer,” Blacc offers an early glimpse into the new direction he’s taken in his thoughtfully crafted songwriting. Built on a brightly melodic sound that echoes his fresh-yet-timeless sensibilities, the storytelling-driven breakup ballad channels the sweet ache of nostalgia as Blacc delivers a deeply passionate vocal performance.
“Summertime in Brooklyn is electric with all kinds of energy—it’s this magical time that’s full of music, kids running around the park, everybody hanging out in the street, the sun shining on your face,” says Blacc of the song’s inspiration. “So many good memories are made during those times, and there’s something extra-special about all that when you think of how winter can be so brutal.”
Set to appear on his forthcoming album, “Brooklyn in the Summer” follows a pair of recently released songs that show the remarkable scope of Blacc’s artistry. Those songs include “My Story,” an acoustic-guitar-laced, Americana-tinged meditation on self-reliance that he penned for the MacGillivray Freeman/Brand USA film America’s Musical Journey. Narrated by Morgan Freeman, the film finds Blacc tracing the footsteps of Louis Armstrong from New Orleans to Chicago and beyond, crossing paths with icons like Dr. John, Jon Batiste, and Gloria and Emilio Estefan along the way.
“Working on America’s Musical Journey really reinforced the idea that there are no rules in music,” says Blacc. “It reminded me to experiment and take risks, because those experiments can become new genres that help push our culture forward.”
In a more direct manner, Blacc’s experience in meeting with other artists for America’s Musical Journey ended up altering his approach to the writing of “My Story.” “There was a lyric I’d initially written as the beginning of the second verse to that song: “Gray hairs are the ribbons/For a game of life well played,’” Blacc recalls. “But then when I met with Gloria Estefan, she told me how that lyric really resonated with her, so I moved it to the start of the song. That was a great moment, because the art of songwriting is the most meaningful part of this whole business for me.”
Released in March, the fast-paced and fiery “Make Way” embodies a more urgent energy, merging gospel-inspired harmonies with the commanding vocal presence Blacc’s shown since his 2010 breakthrough hit “I Need a Dollar.” “That song comes from the idea that the world gets out of the way for someone who knows where they’re going,” explains Blacc. “It’s a declaration that nothing can stop you from achieving your goals. As long as know what your direction is, the path will always be clear.”
As Blacc points out, “Make Way” also explores a theme that’s long been central to his songwriting: the struggle of the underdog, and the glory that comes from triumphing against all odds. “The underdog narrative is definitely part of my upbringing,” says Blacc. “My parents are from Panama; they’re immigrants who came to this country with nothing. Even though my dad was fully educated, none of his degrees were recognized in the U.S., so he had to start all over. The idea of building completely from scratch and making something of yourself has always meant a lot to me.”
Raised on salsa, merengue, and cumbia, Blacc fell in love with hip-hop as a kid and started writing rap songs when he was nine. With his lyrics drawing influence from socially conscious artists like KRS-One, he put out his first hip-hop mixtape at age 17. Later developing a fierce admiration for such soul musicians as Donny Hathaway and Marvin Gaye, he also discovered an affinity for folk-rock singer/songwriters during his college years. “One of the most important factors in my transition from hip-hop to being a singer was listening to people like Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Kris Kristofferson, and Cat Stevens,” Blacc says. “Their songs are full of emotion that’s expressed in strong lyrics, and that had a big impact on me.”
After inking a deal with indie label Stones Throw, Blacc released his solo debut Shine Through in 2006 and sophomore album Good Things in 2010. Boosted by the breakout success of “I Need a Dollar” (which was selected as the theme song to HBO’s How To Make it In America), Good Things reached gold status in countries around the world and paved the way for his signing to XIX Recordings/Interscope Records in 2012. Made in collaboration with groundbreaking producers like Pharrell Williams, Lift Your Spirit dropped on New Year’s Day in 2014, debuted at #4 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, and earned a Grammy Award nomination for Best R&B Album.
Looking back on his musical path so far, Blacc notes that landing a deal with XIX Recordings/Interscope prompted a major moment of reckoning, and led him to re-examine his artistic intentions. “When I signed a major-label contract, I recognized the power of having a larger audience, and I promised myself that I’d use my voice for social change,” he says. And in creating his upcoming album, Blacc has kept focused on making music meant to inspire a positive shift in mindset. “When things happening in the world seem so terrible and dark, it’s so easy to get stuck in all the negative,” he says. “But I try to do whatever I can to help people out of that. I want my music to be the light.”