For more than 20 years, Lenny Kravitz has defied the expectations of radio programmers with his mix of psychedelic rock and soul. His newest album, Black and White America, continues in that tradition, hopping between genres and featuring guest spots from Jay-Z, Drake and Trombone Shorty.
In spite of its diverse sonic palette, the album does adhere to a central theme of race in the U.S. Speaking with Weekend Edition Sunday host Audie Cornish, Kravitz says he wrote the title track in response to a TV documentary about negative reactions to President Obama's election.
"It was addressing the fact that these people, these Americans, did not like what America had become — they wanted America to be back the way it was 100 years ago," Kravitz says. "It was quite intense. They even spoke about assassination plots.
"We all know that racism exists, and it's out there, and we're going to bump into it from time to time," he adds. "But to hear people speaking about it with such rage and anger and ignorance ... I was like, 'Really? To that extent?' The song just naturally came out of me."
Taking a socially conscious approach in his lyrics has sometimes gotten Kravitz in trouble with critics who've accused him of putting the message before the music. He says he has never taken that criticism to heart.
"It's funny how, when you put out a positive message, people question it or don't like it, or think that it's old-school," Kravitz says. "I mean, look at the world we're living in — we need all of these things. I choose to be positive and optimistic."
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AUDIE CORNISH, host: For more than 20 years, Lenny Kravitz has defied the expectations of black and white radio programmers with his mix of psychedelic rock and soul. On his new album, "Black and White America," Lenny Kravitz takes on perceptions about race in the U.S. head on.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK AND WHITE AMERICA")
LENNY KRAVITZ: (Singing) Martin Luther King, he had the vision, and that's a fact. He died so we could see that was his mission, so don't look back...
CORNISH: Over the course of 16 tracks and almost as many genres, Kravitz opens up about his biracial life, a world in between cultures. And he's got some heavy hitters, like Jay-Z, Drake and Trombone Shorty helping him out. Lenny Kravitz joins us now from our New York Bureau. Lenny Kravitz, welcome to the program.
KRAVITZ: Good morning.
CORNISH: Talk a little bit about the genesis of this album, because I read that you got started in reaction to a documentary about the election of President Obama.
KRAVITZ: Well, that song in particular, "Black and White America," was a rebuttal to a documentary that I'd seen on television. I don't know what the name of the documentary was but it was addressing the fact that these people, these Americans, did not like what America had become. They wanted America to be back the way it was 100 years ago. You know, we all know that racism exists and it's out there and we're going to bump into from time to time. But to hear people speaking about it with such rage and anger and ignorance just - I was like, really to that extent? And so the song just naturally came out of me. And I've always sang about love and God and peace and all the things that I believe in, and that's me.
CORNISH: You know, one of the criticisms that I do read most about your work is about the message, you know, that it's sort of throwback hippie messaging, about love...
KRAVITZ: Well, not really throwback, is it.
CORNISH: No, no, not at all. And I'm wondering, I mean, do you ever have moments where, or have you had moments in your career where you thought, OK, maybe I need to, like, back off of this.
KRAVITZ: Not at all. And it's a positive message. And it's funny how when you put out a positive message, people question it or don't like it or...
CORNISH: Like it can't be sincere or something.
KRAVITZ: Yeah, or think that it's old school. I mean, look at the world we're living in. We need all of these things. And I choose to be positive and optimistic.
CORNISH: I want to give our listeners an idea of the range of styles on "Black and White in America." So, we're going to play bits of "Rock Star City Life," "Liquid Jesus," "Superlove," "Stand" and "Dream."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK STAR CITY LIFE")
KRAVITZ: (Singing) Walk like a man, you think you're older. She understands, she's think you're joker. She's got the clown...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIQUID JESUS")
KRAVITZ: (Singing) Wash me over (unintelligible) ooh, liquid Jesus, wash me over.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUPERLOVE")
KRAVITZ: (Singing) What you, all of you...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAND")
KRAVITZ: (Singing) Don't give up. You're going to see tomorrow. 'Cause you'll be on your feet again...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DREAM")
CORNISH: Lenny Kravitz, I feel like I got the full range of your career, some other people's careers, I mean, rock, soul, pop, ballad, kind of like stadium clap-your-hands-over-your-head kind of ballads. I mean, tell us about sort of why you wanted to take that approach with this album, mixing up the genres.
KRAVITZ: I love music. You know, my albums have always been a bit schizophrenic. I've never been able to make an album that has one sound throughout. You know, the one thing I knew when I started this album was that I wanted to have a large landscape to work within. I didn't know what kind of record I was going to make. I didn't know what was going to come out. But I wanted to make what I called a classic double record. And although you can - the CD, you know, comes one CD. I view this as a double album in the tradition of great double albums, like "Songs in the Key of Life" Stevie or "Electric Ladyland" Jimi Hendrix or "Sign o' the Times" Prince or whomever, you know.
CORNISH: And you recorded this album, I read, in the Bahamas and in Paris. So, tell us a little bit about that process.
KRAVITZ: Well, those are my two residences. You know, the Bahamas is where my mother's family's from, so I feel very Bahamian. And I went down there and I just stayed. I wanted to get away from everybody and everything and technology and just live in the bush, and that's what I did.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
KRAVITZ: (Singing) (unintelligible) let life speak of something. Just...
CORNISH: So, another song inspired by the islands is "Boongie Drop."
KRAVITZ: "Boongie Drop" - you said it right.
CORNISH: My family's from Jamaica.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOONGIE DROP")
KRAVITZ: (Singing) Cornrows, beads and afros, stud beads (unintelligible) from Nassau...
CORNISH: And you collaborated with Jay-Z, rapper Jay-Z. And, you know, the thing is I never heard a Jay-Z song in which he's guested on in which he didn't, like, take over the song basically. And somehow, that did not happen with you. And, I mean, have you worked with him before?
KRAVITZ: Yes. This is the third time that we've actually worked together. I was on "The Blueprint," I believe was the album. He's coming up.
CORNISH: I don't know if we can play all of what he says actually, remembering some of that rap.
KRAVITZ: I don't know if you can play the first sentence.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOONGIE DROP")
JAY-Z: (Singing) Remember me from the basement parties. I remember you, tight, tight, no panties. My feet blowing on in your tight feet, rub-a-dubbing so close, dripping on my Nikes...
KRAVITZ: You know, I just heard his voice on that - same thing with Drake on "Sunflower." You know, I just, I heard his voice.
CORNISH: And I'm glad you've brought that up because we've got time for one more tune, and "Sunflower" is one of my favorites. It's a really sweet song and then Drake is sort of the, like, the ladies' rapper I feel like. It feels like you guys are a good match here.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUNFLOWER")
KRAVITZ: (Singing) Oh, you're making me feel that everything is all right. You're my sunflower, you're my sunflower. You're making feel that everything is all right. You're my sunflower, you're my sunflower...
DRAKE: (Singing) I'm not that good with words but I'm gonna try my best. Look, I won't ever make you mad, girl. I just wanna have a seed. You know, the things young men are hesitant to have, girl. A little you, a little me, someone else, good Lord, that's a winner right there. But we really got a story to tell. I can't finish right now. I used to wonder what my old girl doing right now. Ever since you came into my life, every time I think it'd be good to call her, I just think about you and it made me think twice. Ah yeah, yeah, I know we been...
KRAVITZ: The collaborations on the album are all dictated by the music. And so it makes it easy when you let the music do the work.
CORNISH: Lenny Kravitz - his new album just out is called "Black and White America." Lenny Kravitz, thank you so much for talking with us.
KRAVITZ: My pleasure. Have a beautiful day.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUNFLOWER")
KRAVITZ: (Singing) You're my sunflower...
CORNISH: You can hear songs from "Black and White America" at NPRmusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.