In his essential book on the American musical tradition, Mystery Train, Greil Marcus wrote of iconic bluesman Robert Johnson:
To be an American is to feel the promise as a birthright, and to feel alone and haunted when the promise fails. No failure in America, whether of love or money, is ever simple; it is always a kind of betrayal, of a mass of shadowy, shared hopes.
Within that failure is a very different America; it is an America of desolation, desolate because it is felt to be out of place, and it is here that Robert Johnson looked for his images and found them.
Over the years, the blues has moved into becoming the forum of the guitar god – think Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and John Mayer – and less of the form for one to attempt to make sense of the despair he or she feels when looking at the outside world. That’s the blues Robert Johnson played. It’s that blues Fantastic Negrito is bringing back.
Please Don’t Be Dead is the second album Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz has released under the Fantastic Negrito moniker. The first, 2016’s Last Days of Oakland, used traditional blues and soul-funk soundscapes to explain and lament the changes Dphrepaulezz was experiencing in his hometown. On Please Don’t Be Dead, he’s looking beyond Oakland to examine America at large. The image he sees isn’t a pretty picture.
Over 11 tracks that range from primal, howling despair to gospel-infused refrains of perseverance, Please Don’t Be Dead presents a drug-addled nation rife with interpersonal cruelty, a humanity-stripping land, a place to be survived.
The album opens with its lead single, “Plastic Hamburgers.” Anchored by a huge, Zeppelin-esque riff, Negrito roars about the horrors of prescription drug abuse:
American pill will wreck ‘n kill
Automatic weapon in a twitching hand
The 50 foot wall of addiction, man
It’s a song of sadness, lamenting the lives lost to addiction, but it’s also a seething protest song that rages at what he calls the “Hegemony born with a winning hand” that fans the flames and profits off it.
That battle, between an oppressive elite seeking to gain and maintain control over every day people just trying to survive, is at the crux of Please Don’t Be Dead. The finest example of this is on the dramatic guitar- and organ-driven crunch of “The Suit that Won’t Come Off.” It serves as a metaphor for being black and alienated in an America stolen from you and a restoration of what’s yours that will never come. Negrito mourns, “All of my life I’ve been standing on the outside” and asks:
How do you sleep at night
When you’ve stolen everything you ever had?
How do you sleep at night
When you stole it from me?
With his last two tracks, Negrito looks within to find a way out of the darkness. Backed by simple piano chords and layering his vocals to create a gospel choir-effect on the penultimate “Never Give Up,” he conjures up images of sunshine at the end of the rain and encourages listeners to, well, never give up.
The album closes with the irrepressible blues- funk of “Bullshit Anthem,” where he strikes a tone of defiance and self-reliance, promising to persevere and “take that bullshit, turn it into good shit.”
In “Mystery Train,” Marcus also wrote that Robert Johnson saw a “world without salvation, redemption or rest; it was a vision he resisted, laughed at, to which he gave himself over, but most of all it was a vision he pursued.”
On Please Don’t Be Dead, Fantastic Negrito pursues his vision of America, and when he finds himself at the crossroads, he chooses a different route than Johnson. He chooses salvation.