Is the Future of Funk and Soul Stuck in the Past?



Ask anyone about the revivalist funk and soul movement and, more likely than not, the conversation will turn to Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. A former Rikers Island corrections officer and Wells Fargo guard, Jones burst onto the national stage with her critically acclaimed Dap Dippin' with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, released in 2002 by Daptone Records. Starting with Dap Dippin', Daptone Records became the Hitsville U.S.A of neo-soul. And while the Dap-Kings have yet to measure up to the legacy of the hit machine that was Motown's Funk Brothers, their sound has given way to a new breed of retro outfits. The world-roots funk of Staten Island's Budos Band, The Daktaris, Binky Griptite, The Sugarman 3, and the Poets of the Rhythm all call Daptone Records home, but they remain distant sattelites to the shining star of Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings.

Sharon Jones' place is at the head of the momentum surrounding the return of soul, but her most recent release, I Learned the Hard Way, poses some questions for the band. While Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings may be the best R&B band since the Funk Brothers drove Motown Records, their fourth album is something of an existential crisis: is their commitment to the impeccable combination powerful grooves, textured guitars, and brass blasts of the 1960s and 1970s holding them back? And is it time to abandon the trademark sounds of old for new experiments in funkiness?

The album scored 83/100 on Metacritic, outpacing 100 Days and received generally favorable reviews. But despite widespread praise, even the most ebullient reviewers echo the album's detractors. "Is I Learned the Hard Way a record or a museum exhibit?" notes Jody Rosen of Rolling Stone. "Sharon Jones sings with force and feeling, but there's only so much she can do to breathe life into music so in thrall to the past." Slant Magazine's Jonathan Keefe echoes Rosen's sense of boredom. "Without doing anything new to challenge themselves or to push their style in any new directions, the album feels rote and predictable," scoffs Keefe. "Their retro fetish has grown stale." Even Jeff Tamarkin senses the holding pattern in hisA+ review for the Boston Phoenix: "Their fourth album isn't substantially different from their first three."

There's certainly space in the funk-soul revival for innovation. Fellow Daptones sister the Budos Band has continued to wow critics with their experimentation with polyrhythms, exotic melodies, and undertones of world music. Janelle Monae has essentially created her own genre of space-funk. As Aylin Zafar eloquently noted, soul-stirred wunderkinds like Mayer Hawthorne may in fact save soul, as Hawthorne "is taking it to a new level with his own brand of the classic genre--adding in slinky tinges of R&B and jazz with vocals that tug so hard at the heartstrings, even grown rappers might shed a tear." The retro hooks that stand the test of time may find a new home clustered between dripping synth lines or ghostly licks. Even 1970s giants like Booker T. Jones are trying to keep step with the constant push for innovation and creation that drives the mass music market (if only with a new rock-infused album, complete with a bouncing iteration of Outkast's "Hey Ya").

It's unlikely that the general reception to I Learned The Hard Way will in any way knock Sharon Jones off the pantheon of leading soul sistahs, but it may leave a funny taste in the mouths of soul revivalists. While the need to innovate and experiment may push fledgling retro-funk outfits to new instrumentation and composition (and costumes, maybe), it seems likely that Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings will weather any future storm, keeping their remarkable brand of soul in perfect stasis. Such a feat is not unheard of: the music of the late James Brown and Otis Redding remains almost universally loved and revered, and even the Oakland-based Tower of Power has been dishing out soul vaccinations across the country for nearly 40 years, maintaining their characteristic flavor through lineup changes and nearly 20 albums.

While no album is universally loved, the few strains of criticism that aims at I Learned The Hard Way needle Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings for doing what the do best: living and breathing the spirit of soul. Now may be the time to for Daptone Records' flagship band to bid farewell to the eternal 1960s tribute and move forward into unexplored worlds of rhythm and soul.