I want to talk about an album that I see not only as the best album to date by bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding, but as one of the best albums of the 2010s from any artist.
Esperanza Spalding’s Emily’s D+Evolution (pronounced by Spalding as “D plus evolution”) is simultaneously a tour de force in groove-heavy, sophisticated yet broadly appealing songwriting, and also a concept album rich in theatricality and lyrical metaphors.
It appealed to Spalding’s jazz fans while continuing to grow her already diverse audience. It also has a deeply personal, at times even autobiographical perspective.
Over the course of the twelve songs on the original release, Spalding tackles themes including confidence, personal growth, poverty and prosperity, blackness and womanhood in American society, love and relationships, education, and more.
There’s far more here than can be covered in a blog post, so my breakdown of the album will be far from comprehensive. Before digging into a few of my favorite songs from the album, I’ll situate this album in the context of Spalding’s output.
Though Spalding is often branded a “jazz musician” (a label she humbly rejects), few would call Emily’s D+Evolution “jazz.” Yet, Spalding’s main collaborators for the record, guitarist Matthew Stevens and drummers Karriem Riggins and Justin Tyson, all have “jazz credentials.”
When Emily’s D+Evolution was released in 2016, it was Spalding’s first release since 2012’s Radio Music Society. Until Emily’s dropped, it was unclear which stylistic direction Spalding’s career would take next.
As much as I don’t want to substitute genre categorization for musical analysis, allow me to use a few genre labels to make an overview of Spalding’s early recording career.
Her first two albums, Junjo (2006) and Esperanza (2008), could reasonably be categorized as Brazilian-inspired contemporary jazz.
2010’s Chamber Music Society highlighted Spalding’s songwriting more, while juxtaposing a jazz rhythm section with a string trio. Radio Music Society played foil to that album’s acoustic sound with more use of electric instrumentation and a funkier sensibility.
Which is all to say, by 2016 Spalding had established herself as an artist exceedingly difficult to pin down genre-wise. Emily’s D+Evolution is undoubtedly closer to Radio Music Society than any of the previous albums, but also markedly different in its incorporation of rock sounds (with ample distortion on Matthew Stevens’ guitar throughout) and in that it mostly abstains from extra orchestration beyond the traditional rock band configuration of vocals, guitar, bass, and drums.
Emily’s was, at the time, Spalding’s most conceptual album to date (her 2018 release 12 Little Spells is arguably more conceptual) and her most theatrical. Even before collaborating with stage director Will Weigler to create the half-concert-half-play that Spalding presented on tour, Emily’s was conceived theatrically. She has said she even dressed differently in the studio to help get into character.
That character is Emily, a sort of alter-ego for Spalding. Emily is her middle name, the name she went by as a kid, and even what her family still calls her.
Spalding’s descriptions of the relationship between Emily and her actual self in interviews have been various and complex, but one such description says Emily is a “less evolved” version of herself. Here she is expanding on that:
“By that I mean a less cultivated, structured, and solidly identified part of my performing self. D+Evolution is the process of dismantling established forms and rebuilding with the pieces. So, I think of Emily as an un-assembled phase of this transition. She’s like my tabula rasa, where all the previously present layers of content have been shaken off, then get freshly re-composed onto the blank slate.”
So the title is a double entendre. The broader meaning blurs the dichotomy of “evolution” and “devolution.” Spalding is calling into question the notion that progress always consists of moving “forward”; she sees it as moving forward and backward at the same time.
The other meaning, which becomes more clear when the title is pronounced as Spalding pronounces it, literally refers to a D+ in the sense of a bad grade. Spalding has said she got bad grades in school, and one of the album’s narratives, which I’ll discuss in connection with the song “Ebony and Ivy,” relates to the way academia can affect one’s sense of their own worth.
But since the album has a sense of narrative, I’ll discuss my favorite songs in the order they come. I’m going to be using some transcriptions and theory concepts to illustrate my points, so if you don’t read music and understand musical jargon, just check out the lyrics and feel free to skip over the more technical parts.
The album opens with a statement of confidence, introducing “Good Lava,” a song that celebrates the powers of human creativity and sexuality. I won’t go into this song thoroughly, but I want to mention it because it plays an important role in introducing listeners to the character of Emily and to the album’s sound world.
“Good Lava” doesn’t ease the listener into Spalding’s new style—it’s based on one of the Crunchy Riffs™ that define her sound on this album. That riff appears for the first time in the bass part when it first enters (measure 4 here).
The song introduces Emily as confident and self-possessed. Once the verse starts, bass and guitar play that Crunchy Riff™ in octaves, which really conveys the power of Emily’s character.
“Good Lava” uses patent innuendo, placing Emily firmly in control of her own sexuality.
I see you like the view
Wondering from a distance what my pretty peak can do
Come brave me
Don’t march up
In your discerning shoes
I see right through the cooler all around your blowing fuse
So let loose
The third verse zooms out from the sexual aspects of this narrative, foreshadowing the narratives about relationships that will appear on the following track, “Unconditional Love.”
One day you’re gonna be
Planting your own flattered, conquered fear and fantasy
Right on me
With this pretty girl flow
Promise not to name it and I’ll even let you climb
But the album is much more focused on Emily as an intellectual and emotional being than a sexual one. “Unconditional Love,” which has some of the most easily accessible lyrics on the album, longs for a respite from the overfamiliar pitfalls of relationships; for love that’s authentic. unique, and (obviously) unconditional.
The third track, “Judas,” takes a somewhat less personal perspective, directing itself more toward social commentary. The song sympathizes with people who “sin” in difficult situations.
I use quotation marks around “sin” because the song uses Biblical metaphors while critiquing the Bible and its usage in public discourse.
Judas represents the most marginalized members of society—or perhaps it’s even accurate to say, people considered to be outside the margins of society. The line which refers to Judas “collecting bottle caps and rum” casts him as a homeless person in America, surviving on recycling dividends and using alcohol (“sinning”) to cope.
That’s what is meant by the line “Honest sinning to chase the blues”—Judas sins out of desperation rather than malice.
I sketched out the first minute or so of “Judas” because it illustrates two of the things that make this song so successful musically. One is that it shows one of Spalding’s most impressive qualities as a singer: her ability to quickly navigate between disparate registers with ease. The other is the way she creates compositional continuity and contrast between the verse and the chorus.
There are a number of motivic links between the chorus and the verse:
- The central motive of the song is the four chromatically descending bass notes on “1 + 2 +”. The chorus’s buttoned-up rhythmic feel loosens at the start of the verse, with the guitar playing more freely, but that bass motive comes back explicitly in bar 21. It’s also stated without the first note in bar 19, and the inversion of that truncated version appears in bar 22. Each of those instances repeats in the second half, then the motive returns again at the end of the verse.
- The drum pattern, which is based on that bass motive, continues into the verse, establishing continuity.
- Both the chorus and verse end with a series of offbeat half-note hits, mainly on Gb major chords. In the chorus those hits come after beats 1 and 3, while in the chorus they’re after 2 and 4.
That mix of continuity and contrast makes the song feel coherent while keeping it interesting.
The lyrics of the verse describe the cycle of suffering and sin; the little girl becomes tough (“made for the modern world”), perhaps even cold, as a result of seeing her mother’s suffering. The metaphor of “raging girls” as “China dolls” suggests that women of Emily’s generation, while seen as being fragile, harbor pent-up anger as a result of the suffering/sin cycle.
The Biblical allusions in the song continue with the following lines:
Digging up holy scriptures to shame her while she drowns
But if you ask my advice, that shallow grave’s a bargain next to Judgment Day
The first line refers to the way women are blamed for their own struggles and shamed for the most difficult decisions in the toughest of circumstances, often using religion.
There are a couple possible interpretations of that second line, but this is what it says to me: society’s mistreatment of women (represented by the “shallow grave”), while bad, is rendered even more heinous by the religious threat that those who indulge in “sin” to cope will be punished in the afterlife.
The final lines of the verse are also open to interpretation, but they seem to say that Emily shouldn’t feel guilty for doing what she has to do to get by, and enjoying the rewards of imperfect behavior.
It’s only a matter of time, honey
Sinks through her teeth
She’s not evil
I say this song has a less personal perspective because it feels more like an outside voice speaking to Emily than Emily herself. I have another possible interpretation of that issue, but more on that later.
The next song I want to touch on is “Ebony and Ivy.” This song uses the same metaphor-driven approach to tackle one of the album’s primary themes, education.
“Ebony and Ivy,” as the title suggests, grapples with the fraught historical relationship between White-dominated institutions of higher learning in the U.S. and Black students.
According to the MIT faculty webpage of historian Craig Stephen Wilder, it was his 2013 book of the same title that inspired Spalding’s song. Wilder’s book chronicles the history of institutional racism in American higher academia, spanning from the inextricable links between elite American universities and the mass enslavement of Africans in the U.S., as well as genocide against indigenous populations, to the role of those universities in perpetuating racist pseudoscience.
Spalding’s song incorporates that historical background from the start, with an intro reminiscent of Kendrick Lamar’s intro to “The Art of Peer Pressure” in that harmonized a cappella vocals spew lyrics in quick succession:
Ochre, ivy, brick, and leather-bound books built up by heavy lock crooks with unburdened minds of bastardized Darwinian logic projected as hard evidence on backs and faces of our ancestral culprits wasted, toiling as the majority on plantated crimes
“Bastardized Darwinian logic” alludes to the aforementioned racist pseudoscience, and the last phrase to the slavery that it legitimized.
The verse enters, zooming in to present day. The song uses wordplay on “sage,” being treated here as the common herb but also meaning wisdom and knowledge. That “elite” knowledge, according to the song, is commodified and sold to those with the inborn privilege to access it. This certainly resonates in the U.S., where an elite education can cost over a quarter million dollars.
Also note the recurrence of a “mountain” as a symbol. It meant something very different in “Good Lava,” but the fact that it features in both songs might explain why several different illustrations of mountains have featured in the background of Emily’s D+Evolution live shows and album art.
So while the first half of the verse has more contemporary perspective, the second half zooms in further to describe an individual’s experience of alienation on campus — a feeling that they don’t belong, that this sort of institution is somehow not meant for them. The line “now we’re really, really learning” critiques the notion that higher education equates to true learning, while independent learning outside the context of academia lacks validity.
The chorus features one of the best melodies on the album. There is a call and response between the riff that guitar and bass play in octaves every two bars, and Spalding’s voice responding with angular lines that are musically “legitimized” by being doubled on synth.
The lyrics of the chorus zoom back out, commenting on the historical experience of Black people (and perhaps other people of color) as a group, pointing out the undeniable fact that exclusion and discrimination from higher education institutions has been a historical setback.
It’s been hard to grow outside
Growing good, and act happy
And pretend that the ivy vines
Didn’t weigh our branch down
It’s been hard to grow outside
But we’re finally happy
Where the sage on the mountain now
Is a plant or animal
The “sage” motif returns. To me, the notion that it is now (happily) a plant or animal means knowledge should be rooted in the natural world and individual experience, things accessible to everyone, rather than being guarded by an elite, as it is described in the next verse:
Sage grows on the mountain
‘round the fountain of unfiltered truth
Someone’s locked the well
You might contaminate their point-of-view
And the taste of high-class feelings
Far from seeking to abolish what we call “higher learning,” the song is calling for it to be reimagined to be more accessible, egalitarian, and flexible so that its benefits can be spread to more people. (And maybe “higher learning” isn’t a good name for it.)
As a side note, Spalding has since become a Professor of the Practice of Music at Harvard University, though she rejects the term “professor” as a way of describing what she does there. So she is evidently taking on this fight to equalize education from within.
The next track, “Noble Nobles,” grapples with the history of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, capitalism, and settler colonialism in the “New World” even more directly. It reprises a theme from “Judas”: Christianity being weaponized to legitimize power structures.
The opening verse:
Dining debutantes in pearl and powdered sugar face
Their refined tastes
Come suckle from mama’s wet maid, you know
Drinking dapper gents in wig and rosy cultured views
Toasting the news
All cargo on Jesus was sold today
These “gents” and “debutantes” are those ironically referenced in the song’s title. Wealth is historically equated with nobility, and brown skin with savagery. “Noble Nobles” posits that bourgeois White supremacy, built on the exploitation of darker-skinned and poorer populations, is the true savagery.
The third line refers to children of upper classes being nursed by wet maids; the fortunes of people of “nobility” are so directly built on exploitation that even the breastmilk that grew their bones in infancy was taken from the bodies of lower-class women.
That last line, “All cargo on Jesus was sold today,” refers literally to the beginning of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. The first ship used to transport kidnapped Africans to the “New World” was called “Jesus of Lubeck,” also known as “The Good Ship Jesus.”
The ship’s captain, John Hawkins, had a reputation as a devout Christian, and held religious services for the crew aboard the ship twice daily. Jesus, seen by some as the antithesis of cruelty, was seen by some perpetrators of history’s worst atrocities as an unimpeachable justification for their acts.
Manifest and lavish
God wants him to have this
And without a doubt believe his
Ends are noble so the savage means are
Deleted from the scene so
We can believe that we are
Noble nobles, what a savage myth
The words “manifest” and “savage” bring up associations with genocide against indigenous peoples—“Manifest Destiny” being the notion that White settler-colonial expansion throughout the modern continental U.S. was ordained by God, and “savage” being a common term for natives.
“Noble Nobles” is continuing another theme from “Ebony and Ivy”: White supremacy in education. Spalding is calling out the whitewashing of American history. Mainstream education in the U.S. constantly makes excuses for crimes against nonwhite populations, such as the perpetrators’ “ends” being “noble.” This theme continues in the second verse:
Talking founding fathers with a free philosophy
That don’t mention me
Or the stain of red blood on their hands, at all
The American education system teaches that our country’s founders had a universalist vision, ignoring the involvement of many of them in the slave trade and genocide against indigenous tribes. As a Black woman, Emily has had to find a new way of relating her identity to American history—one the education system never offered her.
Just as “Ebony and Ivy” does, “Noble Nobles” fast-forwards to the present, pointing out historical continuities that most Americans would prefer to overlook:
Now, we all
Replay it till we understand
Of the story, we’re shooting again
This brings up at least two associations: one with the killing of innocent young people of color by American police and vigilantes, and another with American imperialism and the “War on Terror,” suggesting atrocities against black and brown populations in the name of “noble” causes have been socially and geographically displaced, not ended.
Both of these phenomena treat populations of color as deserving of fatal violence because of an imagined, unspecific future threat they pose. The logic of police brutality rests on the notion that a police officer’s fears justify murder regardless of the credibility of those fears. The logic of the “War on Terror” rests on the notion that preemptive acts of violence are warranted against populations deemed as having the potential to engage in “terrorist” activity at an indeterminate future time, i.e., “tomorrow’s savages.”
All this heavy commentary occurs in the context of a song that seems to float along gently. It pivots gracefully back and forth between C major and A major, virtually without dominant-tonic motion in any form. While the song is mostly in 4/4, placement of harmonic motion in unexpected rhythmic positions makes the phrases string together such that the end of each phrase feels like it is simultaneously the beginning of the next. This effect is furthered by the splitting of the lyrics into phrases that would be awkward outside of this musical context (see the lyrics above).
The pairing of what would otherwise be soothing musical qualities with the harsh reality expressed in the lyrics is no mistake. That sort of emotional incongruity, a common technique in film scoring, makes these lyrics even more haunting.
The album’s tenth track, “Elevate or Operate,” continuing in this vein of sociopolitical commentary, turns its attention to poverty, prosperity, and the “American dream.” The narrative used to explore this topic depicts a couple on an elevator ride unable to discern whether they are ascending or descending.
The thesis of this song is that prosperity is both elusive and illusory; it’s hard to attain and even harder to know when you have attained it. One of the most salient features of American culture is that a large majority of Americans identify as “middle class”—70% according to one survey—while any reasonable definition of the term would encompass a significantly smaller portion of the population.
The persistence of the “American dream” myth (the notion that anyone can reasonably expect hard work to lead to prosperity in the U.S.) leads many poor Americans to see their long-term poverty as a temporary suspension of their inherent middle-class-ness. At the same time, the existence of an ultra-rich ruling class in the U.S. leads many middle-class Americans to see their mild economic success as only a stepping stone to true wealth.
This social dynamic is what “Elevate or Operate” is getting at. The surreal image of the sky rising up symbolizes the unceasing chase of success that bears little fruit for most Americans.
The second verse drives the point home:
Just keep riding ’til your wonder stops
Boot straps up around your neck, in case the thing drops
No one exactly knows what’s at the top
But anything worth working for, must hide a whole lot
The image of “boot straps around your neck” critiques the common phrase in American political and cultural discourse, “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” That phrase sums up the primary ideological barrier to class consciousness in the U.S.—to some extent, Americans interpret their economic conditions more as a result of their own actions than as a result of the politico-economic structure of the society they live in.
The song opens with a music-box-like section whose delicacy is quickly contrasted by the harsh, bombastic chorus, littered with Sick Fills™ by drummer Karriem Riggins.
Notice how the chorus’s alternation of lead vocals with two distinct layers of background vocals is irregular. That’s to say, it’s not as if each phrase repeats every four bars, or at any regular frequency. The most dissonant harmony used here, F/B, occurs at points of hypermetric emphasis (the first of every four bars), where we normally expecting harmonic resolution. These musical aspects create a sense of disorder and confusion, putting the listener into the couple’s mindset.
The lyrics in the chorus portray our couple arguing over the elevator’s trajectory, showing the strain financial uncertainty exerts on relationships.
If this is still Emily speaking here, it’s Emily at her most cynical, telling the listener, “Press a floor to waste your dreams in.”
At the end, the music-box feel returns, and the central question of the song is answered:
Four walls surround
Us with a glassy top
We’re going down
And yes, the sky’s gone up
This time, idyllic sounds of children playing, a bee buzzing by, and, most prominently, birds chirping play in the background. These sounds bring in a note of optimism while retaining the message of the song—we’re still on the ground, and the birds are in the sky above us. While the song takes economic hardship seriously, perhaps this ending suggests simple joys can be found in its midst.
As original as this album is, it ends with a cover: an off-kilter and elaborate arrangement of Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse’s “I Want It Now,” Veruca Salt’s spoiled, self-indulgent anthem from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
I think it’s really interesting that this was the one non-original song chosen for this album. It’s a song written for an irredeemable character, which Emily certainly isn’t.
But I think the song’s inclusion here can be read as an over-the-top celebration of selfishness, continuing that theme from “Judas.” Perhaps this is Emily’s hyperbolic way of saying she deserves happiness.
I want to lock it all up in my pocket
It’s my bar of chocolate
Give it to me now!
I want to wear it like braids in my hair
And I don’t want to share it
I want a party with rooms full of laughter
Ten thousand tons of ice cream
And if I don’t get the things that I’m after
I’m going to scream!
The gluttony of the lyrics is reflected in the musical gluttony of Spalding’s arrangement. The song is littered with dissonant reharmonizations, rhythmic disfigurements of the original song, frequent feel changes, and constant key changes in the melody. It’s like an ice cream sundae with too many toppings.
I’m not about to transcribe this whole thing, but let me just use the first section to illustrate my point.
That wonky bass line played at the beginning by piano in octaves is the main source of coherence in this arrangement, returning for each verse. Note that while “I Want It Now” is originally a fast waltz, this arrangement starts slow and doesn’t go into 3/4 until the bridge.
The bassline fits into three bars of 4/4, and I’ve notated all this in 4/4 because that eliminates any need for meter changes or cross-bar triplets, but it doesn’t necessarily feel like it’s clearly in 4 (at least not until drums enter, emphasizing beats 1 and 3). A three-bar phrase in 4/4 is 12 beats; so is a four-bar phrase in 3/4. So the lack of clear metrical information in the bassline, combined with listeners’ pre-existing familiarity with this song as a waltz, creates plenty of rhythmic ambiguity.
Spalding also distorts the melody. The accompaniment makes it all sound fairly atonal, but the melody enters in what would be E major, according to the original song. From the third phrase (“Give it to me now!”) on, it’s suddenly as if we’re in D major. These surprise modulations recur throughout.
The polytonal triadic harmony that appears in the piano part in bars 10 and 11 also constitute a recurring technique in the song. It’s an approach Spalding said she was inspired to use by her frequent collaborator Wayne Shorter, who uses non-diatonic movement in major and minor triads in some of his recent orchestral writing.
“I Want It Now” closes out Emily’s D+Evolution with a bang. It stands out stylistically and lyrically from the previous eleven tracks, but I don’t think it feels out of place.
After studying this album, I’m still left with some unanswered questions. Most significantly, the Emily character remains enigmatic. I’m unsure if every word on the album comes from her, as the theatricality of the album’s live performance would seem to suggest, or if some of the songs are Esperanza singing to Emily.
The first interpretation presents a problem of inconsistency in Emily’s character—she seems at various points to be selfish, good-hearted, authentic, sarcastic, innocent, jaded, reserved, sexual, confident, and insecure.
I think a more holistic interpretation is that Emily can take on a multitude of forms; throughout the album she sings from various positions of experience and naivety, optimism and cynicism, objectivity and emotional immediacy. Let’s return to Spalding’s statement I brought up above:
“[Emily is] a less cultivated, structured, and solidly identified part of my performing self. D+Evolution is the process of dismantling established forms and rebuilding with the pieces. So, I think of Emily as an un-assembled phase of this transition. She’s like my tabula rasa, where all the previously present layers of content have been shaken off, then get freshly re-composed onto the blank slate.”
This seeming multiplicity of Emily’s character may be what Spalding is describing here. Rather than being a singular, whole person, Emily is a collection of fragments of Spalding’s personality—not only fragments from different stages in life, but even fragments that exist contemporaneously.
This is getting at the complexity of human beings—the most confident among us have deep insecurities, the kindest people have moments of selfishness, etc. “Devolution,” which is mentioned but not clearly explained in the song “One,” is a process by which these many fragments of personality recede and reemerge.
I’m not sure if or when Spalding will return to the sound world of Emily’s D+Evolution, but it would be foolish to expect her to do so. Her sound has continued to evolve with 12 Little Spells, and recent interviews suggest she is now directing all efforts toward Iphigenia, an opera being composed by Wayne Shorter, for which she is the librettist. I’m pretty sure that’s gonna slap.
- Thank you to a multitude of contributors on Genius, who have helped me understand some of these lyrics.
- Another way to gain insight into Emily’s is to check out the live show, which was recorded in at least one iteration by NPR, and can be seen here. Unfortunately, the audio engineering is horrible, and the band’s performance is a bit shaky as well. So even as someone who will often prefer a live recording over a studio version with superior recording quality, I would recommend the studio album in this case.
- I didn’t end up delving into “Funk the Fear,” but if you’re a musician, just take a second to appreciate the virtuosity of playing this bassline at tempo while singing, as Spalding did on tour.
Thanks for reading!