Jon Batiste – ‘World Music Radio’ Album Review

Photo Credit: Emman Montalvan

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the 2022 Grammy’s ceremony was the coveted Album of The Year award being given to Jon Batiste – previously best known for leading the Stay Human band on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show. However, the decision is less shocking the more one thinks about it – We Are is a jazz soul fusion, filled with inoffensive unity messaging and sufficiently accessible melodies to appeal to a wide audience. In short, it was the ultimate safe choice.

The follow-up, World Music Radio, largely attempts to replicate the same formula – a worldly fusion of sounds paired with vaguely uplifting messages. But some changes have been made in the face of the increased pressure that comes with a Grammy win. For Batiste, this does not translate into a more adventurous sound, but a more commercially friendly one. Between the breezy, ready-for-radio melodies and the A-list features – Lana Del Rey, Lil Wayne, and Little Mix’s Leigh Anne, among them – it’s clear that this album is meant to take Batiste’s career to the next level.

The problem with that (beyond the dulling beige hue that permeates almost all of World Music Radio) is that trying to be all things to all people can easily result in something that means very little to anyone at all. Batiste clearly wants to speak to and alleviate, multiple societal ills with his music, but his big tent approach that leaves him afraid to offend anyone also leaves him unable to challenge the systems at fault. “Be Who You Are,” is a hollow and ham-fisted attempt at unity that awkwardly lumps together oppressed groups with their oppressive forces (“My Asians // My Africans // My Afro-Eurasian // Republican // Or Democrat // Aristocrat”).

It’s no surprise then that by the time “Uneasy” rolls around, Batiste has nothing of substance to say about the radical figures he namechecks (“Nostradamus Malcolm // Marvin saw what’s going on”). Though World Music Radio avoids politicking elsewhere (and is all the better for it), the cliché-heavy approach remains a constant. Limp reassurances that “you can only be who you are” and “you can’t give up” populate the exhaustive hour-plus runtime and get rephrased in multiple different, but equally un-evocative ways. 

If there’s one thing that elevates the listening experience of World Music Radio, it’s the guest stars. Leigh-Anne elevates the otherwise banal “Running Away,” and in doing so, leads Batiste to push his vocal delivery beyond its usual constraints. JID proves masterful on “Be Who You Are,” while K-Pop cult-favorites NewJeans inject needed levity into the same song. However, the inclusion of these two very different artists on one song proves jarring and suggests these features were chosen cynically – with more focus being given to maximizing audience reach than to who would fit where the best. 

If you can sit through an hour of World Music Radio – which fares perfectly fine in the background, but fails to hold up to closer scrutiny – you are treated with the LP’s far and away best song. The closer “Life Lesson” featuring Lana Del Rey, is a tender and atmospheric ballad that is more evocative than most of the previous 20 tracks combined. The song’s storyline, which progresses largely because of Del Rey’s contributions, charts a troubled romance that eventually dissolves, with the woman in that relationship left serving as a “life lesson” to a man who has now moved on. There’s real emotional complexity in the character Del Rey plays, who in one moment is smiling at the new couple, and in the next, declares, “I hope it’s cold where you reside.” It turns out that World Music Radio actually fares best when it abandons its radio-station gimmick, ill-fitting features, and clichéd politicking, and instead tells intimate stories at its own pace.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.
Written by: Tom Williams

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