The Last Days of Oakland is a thought-provoking album that should leave you with as many questions as it does answers. One of those questions might be ‘what exactly is this album?’ It has hints of hip-hop, remnants of rock and roll, the odd ballad-esque moment that veers towards r&b, and one cover song that played a crucial part in the history of grunge. More than anything though, it is a throwback to the blues tradition that was so important to the history of African Americans. But there should be no hint of an insult attached to this use of the word throwback; this album could not be more relevant to society today.
Because even if there are a few doubts over what shelf it should be stocked on in HMV, one thing about The Last Days of Oakland is impossible to deny. It’s a hugely political album. While the first full track, ‘Working Poor’, might hint at this political bent, the full force of Fantastic Negrito’s debut LP hits home when we reach ‘What Do You Do’. It may only be an interlude, but the interviews with black Americans that sit at its centre are as affecting as anything else on the album. The depressing rise of young black males being shot by policemen is the focus of the song, and it certainly strikes a chord. This is followed by ‘The Nigga Song’, another powerful and relevant statement that makes the inspiration behind the album abundantly clear.
Next comes ‘In the Pines’. Some readers may recognise this title. The track originates from an American folk song that dates back to the 1870s. But even if you don’t recognise the title, you’re probably familiar with the Nirvana interpretation that brought the song to a worldwide audience. Renamed ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’ by Kurt Cobain and his cronies, the track can now be found in the record collections of grunge fans everywhere. But by subtly mixing the original lyrics with their own, and infusing the song with their trademark blues beat and rib-rattling bassline, Fantastic Negrito brings the song into line with the album’s message and more than makes it his own. This is arguably the album’s highlight.
There’s plenty of fun to be had among this hard-hitting theme, though. And Fantastic Negrito, previously known as Bay-area based songwriter Xavier Dphrepaulezz, brings enough energy and drive to the record to drag even the most unpolitical listener all the way to the end. Last Days of Oakland, though, is most likely to win admirers among those who like a little social commentary when they press play and stick their headphones in. This is the kind of album that has been sadly missing in the modern era. Fantastic Negrito shows us that protest music can still be entertaining and melodic at the same time as packing a political punch.