José James is a master interior designer and No Beginning No End is a perfectly functional lounge room. It’s minimal in design, though its pieces range in size and shape; it’s decidedly not an Ikea set piece, it is more lived-in than that. And that’s about where my critique of James’ fourth full length record via a cliché design metaphor ends (for now at least).
No Beginning No End reminds me of a lot of stuff that I love: D’Angelo’s Voodoo, Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), Common’s Like Water for Chocolate, Wu-Tang Clan’s 8 Diagrams. And then there’s a bunch of stuff it reminds me of that I do not particularly care for: Aloe Blacc’s “I Need a Dollar,” Ray Lamontagne’s Trouble, Justin Timberlake and Jay Z’s “Suit and Tie.” Of course I cannot speak for James’ personal influences, but these are sonic touchstones that I hear when I put this on. It sounds like James is channeling these artists through his own unique style, like a particularly idiosyncratic karaoke regular.
Perhaps that’s a bit unfair. James has excellent vocal control; he never swallows his syllables, he never overextends, and his voice is perfectly placed amidst this record’s bizarre bag of sounds. And speaking of sounds, there are some cool and unique textures here that I am surprised I haven’t really heard anywhere else (at least like this). There is what sounds like an aerosol can being shaken (but never sprayed) on several tracks, which mimics sporadic, yet controlled off-beat rim drumming that is somewhat of a (much welcome) constant on this record. There’s a stellar lounge piano thing that wahs in and out throughout and sometimes it reminds me of Radiohead’s The King of Limbs for some reason. There’s some outstanding guitar work perfectly woven into some later deep cuts, a quality that reminds me of how Men at Work sneaks brilliant saxophone solos into seemingly unremarkable soft rock songs(footnote: I am somewhat of a Men at Work fan-boy). What is continually impressive however is how non-jarring all of these weird textures are when neatly tucked into James’ whisper quiet repertoire.
All of that said, No Beginning No End is a perfect background record, and it is strangely (and mind-bogglingly) remarkable that its weirdest noises are so nondescript despite being completely audible. It’s rare I think that such an incidentally appealing record doesn’t just completely swallow its most interesting parts, yet because of this, No Beginning No End, despite its unrelenting sexiness, is not particularly seductive either; it is just sort of there, enhancing whatever mood is already hanging there.
In conclusion, I guess it is a bit like wallpaper (see, it all came full circle). And while I’d prefer clean, painted walls filled with Mondrian reproductions, I don’t have anything against it. For what it’s worth, it really ties the room together.
No Beginning No End is out now on Blue Note Records.