top of page

Gary Clark Jr. Continues to Impress With JPEG RAW

Last week, Gary Clark Jr. went on the Daily Show to promote his new album JPEG RAW and at the end of the episode, he played about three minutes of the last song on the album, “Habits.” It was beautifully performed in a way that was stripped down and shortened from its original ten-minute length but if all you had heard of that song was what he performed on late night television, you’d be missing out on the distorted indie-sounding guitars that blare in your ears right after you think the song ends and the Latin American-inspired groove that follows. You’d also be missing out on the experimentation in his vocal performance as well as the feeling of relief when you check the time elapsed on the song to notice that there’s plenty more left to listen to. Similarly, If you’d let his first two commercially successful albums define him as an artist in your perspective, you’d be missing out on how far his talents genuinely stretch. After the album’s release, he sat down for an interview with Questlove where he admitted that he didn’t want to be put in the box of being a blues artist and it makes sense when you listen to the project because he incorporates so many unique genres of music and blends them into his sound in a way that feels so natural. This album is a love letter to the music that inspired him growing up and it features some heavy hitters in the music world like George Clinton and Stevie Wonder just to name a couple.

 The creation process started during the pandemic at a time when he was stuck at his home with his family, watching the same news we all watched unfold and he comes through on this album with some fatherly wisdom and painfully honest commentary on all of it. He explores topics like police brutality and offers his vision of Black liberation and the healing of generational trauma on the opening track, “Matkub” and on the title track, he calls on us all to take ownership of our actions despite our hesitations to face the consequences and he asks what we’re waiting for if we’re not getting what we want out of life. He opens up about feeling alone despite having a partner and trying to get back what they lost in “Alone Together,” which features Keyona Harrold. This is also one of the songs where he dives the deepest into jazz, utilizing Harmon-muted trumpets that stay in the driver’s seat for the whole song and his vocals are soulful and soft to match the texture of the instrumentals. He and Stevie Wonder spend the track, “What About the Children,” calling out the moral hypocrisy of calling oneself a good person while being complacent with the suffering of thieves and prostitutes trying to survive and provide for their own families. Fun stuff, but he does manage to give a message of hope and inspiration on tracks like “Triumph” which he’s stated is his favorite song on the record.

Lyrically, the album is all over the place and Gary Clark Jr. even admits that he doesn’t know what the album is “about” per se but the songs are authentic to who he is as a person and an artist. The lyrics don’t lack direction and the album is far from incohesive but it’s hard to pin down a sound to classify it in one genre and it’s hard to build a singular narrative around this album but that’s also what Gary Clark Jr. himself wanted. If you didn’t know before, you will surely know now that he’s not a one-dimensional artist. He can shred with the best of them but he can also turn the gain down and play some really tasty jazz licks that are insanely musically complex despite sounding more subdued. He’s always had some vocal range but he expands on it even more here to match his voice to serve more jazz and hip hop inspired productions.

It feels like he’s breaking out of a shell of sorts. He wants to define himself outside of the parameters of the blues genre and no singular review or interview or performance could adequately sum up the album, nor could they truly do justice to some of the incredible musical passages and soundscapes that he creates. On parts of the album, you can feel yourself in the jazz lounge scenes that some of the songs end with and some of the more synthetic production makes you feel like you’re in some sort of futuristic setting almost like you could see outer space if you looked out a window and this is the kind of feeling you could only get listening to an artist taking a lot of artistic risks that all pay off. So don’t make the same mistake that the music industry at large has made for the last decade in thinking that Gary Clark Jr. is just a really good blues guitarist. Listen to the album several times, watch the interviews, watch the performances, and listen to the artists who inspired him because that’s what this album calls on all of us to do. It exposes us  to the music that inspired him and JPEG RAW is part of the natural progression and evolution of the music he loves. This album is a lot of things: experimental, raw, polished, thought-provoking, mind-easing, and the list goes on. All of us are sure to experience this album differently and we will surely find different meanings in each song but one thing that we should all be able to agree on about this album is that it’s a triumph of the musical spirit. No notes.

Reviewed by Bret O’zee


bottom of page