*I’ve imagined Jesse Johnson trying to make the independently released Verbal Penetration Volume One and Two for a major label. I imagine some A&R exec’s initial glee at being told the title of the double CD set–and then his disgruntlement after learning the song has zilch to do with one getting their rocks off and is a call for society to communicate, openly and succinctly.
Then I imagine the exec hearing selections from the collection itself and having a fucking conniption: Where are the cliche references to fast women, men who think with their penises, Benjamins, designer cars and clothes, top-self booze, mind-numbing weed and pimped-out cribs that the labels view as vital to marketing black pop?
Where are the joints about shaking that ass, where’s the proverbial hot Guest Rapper and, paramount, where is the track about being up in the all-consuming, almighty Club?
Verbal Penetration Volume One and Two just happens to be the raw, funky antithesis of all that. Channeling James Brown, Hendrix, Curtis Mayfield and The Last Poets, during VP Jesse writes, plays and sings in honor of subjects you don’t hear about much in black music these days: self love and cultural pride.
VP’s poignant message doesn’t stop Jesse from being, well, Jesse. The double disc’s title track, for example, is quintessential Jesse, a big, earth-moving funk/rock anthem Johnson delivers with all the swagger of a gunslinger.
From there it’s “Propaganda,” a low-down, infectious groove about how the media systematically spews doo-doo (and how we’ve fallen for it). The track moves like a panther, driven by a wicked, irresistible guitar hook.
Speaking of guitar, Jesse hasn’t played like this on a recording before. During the instrumentals alone–“Merciful,” a prowling, Funkadelic-meets-Santana workout; the meditative “Beautiful Sadie” and “Ali Vs. Frazier,” an uptempo, straight-ahead old school jazz exercise (with Del Atkins on bass)–Jesse shreds as if his life depended on it, blazing with a style, passion and craftsmanship that illustrates why he is one of funk/rock/soul’s most compelling players. In fact, throughout VP, Jesse tears up the fretboard, and every riff fits.
Of course, Jesse still knows how to make you dance, as evidenced during “100 Watts Of Funky.” And he doesn’t neglect romance. “Sheila Rae” and “Love Letters,” featuring Jesse’s honey-voiced falsetto, feel like radio-ready R&B love songs from back in the day. However, no matter its lyrical sentiment, the head-bobbing “Get Next To You,” feels like sheer lust. While the dreamy, melodic ballad, “We R So Strong,” speaks to the love of who we are and can be as a people, the sexy, rocking “Slo Burnin'” is an ode Jesse’s love for The Groove itself.
It’s clear that in recording VP without major-label “suits” lurking about, Jesse relished doing whatever the hell he pleased. During disc two, one minute he’s enlisting the venerable Sue Ann Carwell to sing the wistful “Please Let me Go” and the next he’s got L.A. radio vet Frankie Ross, during “Meditation 01 Astrology,” narrating an ominous dissertation on how cold-blooded the science community was to demote Pluto from planet status. Now I know why Jesse doesn’t smoke anything–brotherman doesn’t need any help in that area.
Still, when Jesse invited me to contribute to Verbal Penetration by saying, “write whatever you want,” I hadn’t heard any of VP’s tracks. I was certain he’d reject my steely treatise on the N-word and general nonchalance of the black American as being too tough.
Indeed, Jesse didn’t say much when I emailed him a draft of the essay; he said even less after I’d recorded my words at his home studio. At the time, I didn’t think he’d even written music for the track.
But a couple weeks later, when he played me the completed “Slave 2 R Freedom,” I sat stunned. My voice was riding over a funky, tenacious march, the emotion of the subject matter personified by Carwell’s mighty, gospel-tinged ad-libs. After the track finished, Jesse simply smiled. The man imploring the world to engage in meaningful dialogue didn’t say a word. Didn’t have to. The music said it all. — Steven Ivory
Check out the music from Verbal Penetration