Steve Arrington & Dam-Funk Higher
Higher is the kind of collaboration that feels like it was fated to happen. In 2009, singer Steve Arrington—the former frontman of pioneering disco/funk outfit Slave—returned to the music business after 20-plus years of silence (he had quit making records to devote his life to God) and offered up a new solo record called Pure Thang. Following its release, leading funk revivalist Dam-Funk, who had worshipped Arrington while growing up in Pasadena, California, seized on the opportunity to connect with one of his heroes, and introduced Arrington to the Stones Throw family in 2010. It's all pretty serendipitous when one learns that Dam-Funk first linked up with Stones Throw after bonding with label head Peanut Butter Wolf over a rare bootleg of a Slave performance. Given that, there's really no better home for a collaboration between these two masters, and Higher finds them spreading the gospel of love, peace, and funky beats.
Dam-Funk and Arrington could've easily made a retro album that sounded like it was straight out of 1982, but Higher is more forward thinking than that. With Dam-Funk's production driving the album, Arrington has room to experiment with the vocals and, at times, get a little weird. On "I Love This Music," he sings, "I give my heart and soul it's true, I love this music/Never let the past define me/Never let a hit record own me just let my heart guide me." He then delves into a quick monologue to address all the people who question his evolving style: "People say to me, 'Steve, you've changed so much, done so many different things'/I say, 'Yeah, I think like a jazz musician.'" The rest of the song finds Arrington playing around with wordless scatting, only occasionally punctuating the proceedings with sparse lyrics along the lines of "Hip-hop, you don't stop," "Make you wanna feel like it," and "Rock 'n' roll." Somehow, it works.
Positivity and spirituality drive Higher, which is unsurprising given Dam-Funk's characteristic optimism and Arrington's religious conversion. "There is healing in the music," Arrington sings on the title track. In anyone else's hands, lyrics like "I got the stuff to blow your mind/To keep you satisfied" and "You're so magnificent/Your flow is so magnificent/And you're my girl" would sound pretty silly. Yet for the most part, Higher feels completely sincere, and avoids delving into cheese, save for a couple of exceptions. For instance, "Good Feeling" finds Arrington singing, "I remember when mama used to make the bomb German chocolate cake/It was a good feeling/A good, good feeling."
Occasional lyrical missteps aside, Arrington's voice sounds as smooth as ever on this album, which is great, although it does overshadow Dam-Funk's significant vocal talent. Still, it's understandable that Arrington takes the lead here—Higher is jump-starting the next phase of his musical career. As for Dam-Funk, it's likely that simply working with Arrington is akin to a dream come true, so he probably doesn't mind this particular division of labor.
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