Robert Glasper’s genre-defying “Black Radio” won a Grammy Award last year for best R&B album.
Keyboardist Glasper collaborated with star vocalists for the project, including Erykah Badu, Ledisi, Lupe Fiasco, Lalah Hathaway, Bilal and Yasiin Bey. The entrancing hybrid of R&B, jazz and hip-hop earned critics’ praise, and its first single, “Ah Yeah,” featuring Chrisette Michele and Musiq Soulchild, won mainstream success.
Glasper, as well as many of the talented artists he worked with for “Black Radio” and its follow-up, “Black Radio 2,” are appearing at the Essence Festival this weekend.
“It’s probably the biggest gathering of African-American musicians and artists and music lovers in one spot,” he said. “It’s a great thing, and everybody is positive. It’s just good vibes.”
“Black Radio” followed Glasper’s four previous albums as well as years of work as a jazz and R&B sideman. Its breakout success exceeded Glasper’s modest expectations.
“I thought it would be, at best, an underground album that people liked,” the Houston native said from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y. “I didn’t think I would be hitting the Billboard chart. The first week it’s out, No. 4 on the R&B/Hip-Hip chart. I wasn’t expecting that.”
Glasper invites singers he admires to collaborate with him in the studio.
“Everybody is not a great singer, but some people are great stylists,” he said. “I appreciate that.”
Glasper’s recordings are often spontaneous acts of creation. During the production of “Black Radio,” for instance, he and his collaborators were simply having fun.
“A lot of times we don’t have much time to know what we’re going to do,” he said. “But when I write, I write with that person in mind. I’m still capturing who they are but, at the same time, I bring something new that they probably don’t normally have.”
Glasper followed his late mother into music. A versatile singer and pianist, she performed in churches and Houston clubs.
“I went to all those places with her,” he recalled. “My mom had amplifiers and keyboards and drums at the house. She had rehearsals in our living room. So that was just a part of our lives.”
Glasper’s nonmusician father contributed to his development, too, exposing him to Earth, Wind & Fire, Luther Vandross, Grover Washington, Phil Collins and Genesis.
“My dad is gonna be in the house at the Essence Festival,” Glasper said. “Anytime I perform near Houston, he’s there.”
Glasper gigged in Houston when he was a child. He moved to New York City in 1997 to study music at New School University. Later, while planning to eventually launch a solo career, Glasper worked as a sideman with jazz artists Russell Malone, Christian McBride, Nicholas Payton, Terence Blanchard and Roy Hargrove. He’d later do sideman work for R&B artists Maxwell, Bey, Bilal and Q-Tip.
“Those people who I worked with are really open and cool,” he said. “While I was fitting into what they do, they allowed me to be who I am at the same time. That made it something special.”