What's Going On?

Sometimes Gaye just means being happy: Feel-good soul man Michael Franti

Sometimes Gaye just means being happy: Feel-good soul man Michael Franti

In a timely repackaging move, Motown has recently padded that post-soul landmark of good intentions, Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, into a sprawling, two-disc consumer event. Now you can hear a complete set of different, and yet strikingly unrevealing, mixes. Now you can thrill to an exhumed board tape of Marvin live onstage, stripped of impertinent studio blandishments. But most important, now you can buy the same damn record for the umptillionth time--and at only twice the price. And yet, this "deluxe edition" isn't quite your typical consumer snookering, because our particular musical moment demands a re-listen to Gaye's masterwork--if only to realize that it isn't all as masterful as advertised.

Consume What's Going On with open ears and you'll hear three great singles and a lot of choral and orchestral goop that, no matter how progressive the album's intent, seem better suited to Gaye's earlier forays into supper-club showtunes than an experiment in social realism. Yet you'll also hear a vibrant blueprint for the most ambitious R&B of today--fussily lush in its arrangements yet vocally austere in its outlook. It's hard not to feel that, in the rushed revolutions of disco standardization and hip-hop mechanization, there was some musical and cultural business begun in the early Seventies that has since been left unfinished. And so, from the moody luxuriance of D'Angelo to the slyly stoned grooves of the Neptunes, the nuevo-soul mélange of flute, vibes, and wah-wah is once again the hallmark of "progressive" R&B.

Just as boomers overromanticized the integrationist idealism of Sixties Motown and the civil-rights wallop of Stax and Atlantic soul, so younger soul fans now cherish the elastic song structures (and occasional bourgie aspirations) of early-Seventies innovators such as Gaye and Curtis Mayfield. Amid your Badus and Bilals, and alongside the far from ill Jill Scott and far from irie India Arie, Michael Franti hijacks these same smooth influences for quite impolite purposes.

Franti has been on the retro-R&B tip since 1994, when his new collective, Spearhead, premiered with Home, a well-meaning Gil Scott-Heron impression that plunked acid jazz into the coffee-house-poetry milieu where it belonged--while keeping one ear cocked toward the streets. Three years later Chocolate Supa Highway slogged deliberately into trippier dub soundscapes, and the politics grew more quizzical, offering, as Franti told interviewers at the time, "inspiration, not information."

"Let's try to have a sense of humor," Franti advises his listeners on the title track to his latest Stay Human (Boo Boo Wax/Six Degrees). That lively sentiment might shock folks who haven't paid much attention to Franti since the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, a polemical duo formed with DJ Rono Tse whose sole endeavor, 1992's Hypocrisy Is the Greatest Luxury, was a full-body rubdown with ideological and musical steel wool. The gruff Franti made Chuck D sound as giddy as Flavor Flav, while Tse's industrial siren bleats made the Bomb Squad sound as bland as Britpop confectioners Stock-Aiken-Waterman. Amid the lingering strands of Black Nationalism in hip hop, Franti sounded like some Utne-reading Unitarian who just happened to stumble across Fear of a Black Planet. Then again, maybe he just sounded like himself--a former baller adopted by a white San Francisco couple who got his start rhyming at antiapartheid rallies before signing to Jello Biafra's Alternative Tentacles.

But as Franti finds himself among the neo-soulsters, a needlessly solemn lot by and large, his warmer side has triumphed over his preachy radicalism. Next to a chilly lover boy like Maxwell, or even a bona fide stud-stoic like D'Angelo, Franti is a laugh riot. He has shirked off his residual sourness and become a person rather than a persona, and that warmth is palpable in his vocals. Where previously Franti relied on ringers to impersonate Curtis Mayfield and Bob Marley, he sings more on Stay Human than ever before. That's not necessarily to say that he sings better than ever before, but Franti belongs in a rare class of effective "bad" singers. Where R&B men go for simple beauty, the ravaged baritone that Franti has settled into is the sound of a rapper growing comfortable within his own lungs, trusting in the musicality of language rather than his natural gift.

Not that Franti's lyrics aren't occasionally didactic. "I don't give a fuck who they screwin' in private," he grumbles about politicians on the opening lament "Oh My God." "I wanna know who they screwin' in public." But those sentiments drip atop velveteen acoustics, creating what could very well be the sexiest leftist tirades ever assembled. On "We Don't Mind," for instance, Franti opens with an electric-piano lick that could have been borrowed from the theme to Taxi, and transforms it into a tender anthem of uplift. Yet the instrumentation never distracts from the song at hand. The congas that thump suggestively in the background never derail the primary groove, the Philly soul strings that adorn the high end never feel gratuitous.

One cavil: Although Stay Human contains 13 of Franti's greatest songs, the album contains 21 tracks all told. The remaining numbers are a heavy-handed collection of radio-show skits satirizing a dumb-ass cracker governor (caricatured broadly by Woody Harrelson). Seems that this high-ranking redneck is intent on giving the lethal injection to an inner-city activist named Sister Patima, who has been framed with a murder conviction, and only Franti's public-radio show can tell people the truth. Sadly, Franti's vestigial polemics provide less context than they do sensationalist distraction. Well, nobody said getting your message out to the masses would be easy--and nobody ever said a programmable CD player was merely a luxury.

Still, one of the things that makes Franti so endearing--and his music so frustrating--is that he never knows when to quit. Significantly, where so many of his contemporaries and influences alike reach inward for inspiration, Franti's pretensions reach outward: The songful groove he crafts aspires to grapple with social conditions rather than drift into a self-absorbed symphonic haze. As Seventies post-soul came to voice a frustration with activism, even visionary artists like Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield often lost themselves within their own fuzzy musings, both lyrical and musical.

But Franti feeds off the dormant radical spirit that hip hop once inculcated. Rather than displacing utopia into an unreachable future, he finds pleasure in the struggle of the moment--and so makes pleasure a politically and artistically vital force once again.