Album of the Week: Kamaal Williams ― Wu Hen

Album of the Week returns with a look at Kamaal Williams' outstanding 'Wu Hen.'
By    July 24, 2020

Will Schube still downloads his MP3s at high qualities.

Kamaal Williams’ music gets you high. I haven’t smoked weed since I smoked too much weed that one time in college, so I’m not talking in the traditional way of glazed eyes, glazed donuts, and a preferred form of entertainment. I’m talking about feeling lifted, what music’s supposed to do when it’s done right. It doesn’t matter where you are or what else you may be doing because good music strips those variables and puts you into a world you can enjoy because you cease to be in control. Everything’s marketed to make our lives easier, more controlled, less surprising, but Kamaal Williams says fuck all that. His new album, Wu Hen has one explicit goal, which is to get you far from wherever your worries lie.

Williams was born Henry Wu in Peckham, a district in South London once known as a provincial haven on the outskirts of London and later as a testing ground for socialized fitness as a way to create a healthy, united population. More recently, though, Peckham’s once promising redeveloped housing has grown dilapidated and a lack of work has stricken laborers the promise of improved housing. This led to an abandoned Department of Health and Social Security center being repurposed as an underground music club in the early ‘90s. 

It’s not hard to imagine a young Henry Wu, hearing myths of the parties or the Spike Surplus Scheme, a development run by squatters that offered recording and rehearsal facilities until it was barred in 2009, and growing inspired by how his hometown once embraced collective health over community gain. Because that’s what Wu does as Kamaal Williams. Whether it’s in collaboration with Yussef Dayes or inviting Miguel Atwood-Ferguson to add strings to his new LP, Wu is constantly looking to expand his music with as many perspectives as possible.

On the LP, Williams peddles in a self-proclaimed ‘Wu Funk,’ which blends jazz, R&B, and hip-hop production with particular UK strands of techno, house, jungle, and garage music. It’s less a style than an organism: living, breathing, and adapting to its surroundings. Describing the album, Wu had this to say: “This is a revolution of the mind. A spiritual rebellion. To reach new heights requires separating ourselves from the material world and finding power in what’s intangible.” Easy to say, harder to enact. On Wu Hen, though, Williams and his band (including  Greg Paul on drums, Rick Leon James on bass, Quinn Mason on saxophone, and occasional harp parts from Alina Bzhezhinska) attempt to put that philosophy into practice.

Wu Hen features practically everything you want in an album, not including a mysteriously cut Mach-Hommy verse that he’s probably now selling as an acapella 128kb MP3 for $50 a pop. But if anyone’s got a copy of Mach’s Hard Lemonade you know where to find me. Elsewhere on the album, like on the sprawling, six minute centerpiece “Pigalle,” Williams dives into more straight ahead jazz. He does away with the fusion that percolates throughout most of his work, instead building the track form a short, neat piano riff and a peppy saxophone solo. The bassline moves at the pace of a speed walking olympian, and the drums pop with an internal order but exude controlled chaos. Part of Williams’ talent is in the way he surrounds himself with other talent, always ceding to the greater musical moment. 

Though most of the album gravitates towards high octane acid jazz, closer “Early Prayer” is a meditative, calming new age work supplanted by a delicately gorgeous saxophone part. It’s the cool down after an intense high, belligerent in revealing itself but beautifully illuminating and consciousness expanding. Kamaal Williams’ music imbues his listeners with feelings of hope and positivity―things that would come across as hokey from less confident stylists. But Williams’ transcendent approach is so other-worldly that the revelations are a delight. Approach this new planet without caution, Wu Hen is a familiar joy.

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