If you're going to bill yourself as the fantastic anything, you better bring it hard and strong every time you get up in the lights. That and the fact that the Fantastic Negrito fits on a marquee a bit easier than Xavier Dphrepaulezz was the first step in getting Oakland's newest Grammy winner back on track after a failed first start in the music biz and a devastating car accident that left him in a coma. After physical therapy to regain the use of his legs and his severely damaged playing hand, Dphrepaulezz reassessed his musical approach, expressing himself about social issues through a filter of gospel soaked, funk-fueled blues.
He won the first annual NPR Tiny Desk Concert Contest in 2015, chosen from a field of over 7000 artists. Last month, he won his first Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album for The Last Days Of Oakland.
Dphrepaulezz as Negrito is as much prophet as bluesman, a slick street preacher with a message he sells successfully because he obviously believes it down to his core. He's a great showman, but you get the message that what he's doing isn't theatrics, it's something he has to do to cast out demons - from himself. Negrito projects a ton of charisma, with as commanding a stage presence as Vintage Trouble Frontman Ty Taylor, an amalgamation of James Brown, Robert Randolph, and Prince. The music just explodes out of him.
“'Negrito' is a way to open up blackness to everyone, make it playful, international..... a celebration of blackness,” he told NPR. That celebration is most evident on “The Nigga Song,” but there's nothing playful about this one: “I dropped the e /added the a/ and killed the r/ to heal my scars / don't sing along unless your people hung from trees/ and slaved til dawn/ I hate this song.” It starts with a dirge, a plodding chant that conjures up images of Negrito trudging along in shackles on a chain gang swinging a pick or breaking rocks wielding a nine pound steel. The pace picks up midway through the song, picking up a hard core funk bottom, Negrito getting Princely, sermonizing about his protagonist always fighting against being broken down and shamed.
“Lost in the Crowd” is a testament to Negrito's powers as a shaman. The message is bleak, but he makes it more palatable with a smooth soul-drenched gospel delivery that makes it go down easier: “get through the day/ don't drown/ life it goes fast/youth is gone/ feelings of loss come on/ grieve, move on.”
He revises “In The Pines,” made popular as a folk song by Leadbelly, into a spiritual with the lyrics “black girl,your man is gone/now you travel the road alone/you raised that child all by yourself/then the policeman shot him down.”
Negrito channels Prince on “Hump Through the Winter,” serving up deep-dish funk with the positive message to keep on pushin' when everybody else is down on their knees.
“There's only one Fantastic Negrito in the world,”he tells his Tiny Desk audience. But that one, as advertised, is enough to get the job done, and then some.