Back On The Block

Quincy Jones

Qwest Records, 1989

REVIEW BY: Michael Broyles


Quincy Jones is a person I have admired for a long time.  I grew up listening to his music, sometimes not even knowing it was his.  From his trumpeting and arranging for Lionel Hampton, his penning of the Cosby Show theme song, his big band arrangements for the Count Basie Orchestra with Frank Sinatra (It Might As Well Be Spring) and his production of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Jones’ music has rarely stopped being brilliant.  Jones’ 1989 album Back On The Block shows a reflective Quincy in transition.  It is a valiant attempt to connect the past with the future, as shown by its diverse cast of musicians such as Ice-T, Miles Davis, Chaka Khan, Ella Fitzgerald and Herbie Hancock.  The first nine songs of the album are vibrant masterpieces of 1980’s synthesizer-based pop, rap and jazz.  The last five are unlistenable, boring compositions, completely overstepping the timeless nature of the first part.

Let us start with the good parts!  After a short prologue, the album starts with the amazing African-infused rap song “Back On The Block,” mixing rappers Ice-T, Melle Mel, Big Daddy Kane and Kool Moe Dee with musicians such as Quincy, Rod Temperton (both on multiple instruments) and jazz keyboardist Joe Zawinul (Weather Report).  The song “Back On The Block” is both musically and socially relevant, showing the (then) contemporary African-American music as a continuation of jazz and blues and, ultimately, the “African griot storyteller,” as Jones elaborates in the liner notes (emphasis in the original).   Jones’ inclusion of controversial rapper Ice-T on the first verse also has political and artistic implications.  As Ice-T states towards the end of his rap, “He (Jones) told me ‘Ice, keep doin’ what you’re doin’, man / Don’t give a damn the squares don’t understand / You let them tell you what to say and what to write / You’re whole career’ll be over by tomorrow night.”my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Jones stays true to his vision throughout the next seven songs, which include sweet love songs, lush vocal arrangements, a poignant mix of famous jazz musicians and famous rappers (“Jazz Corner Of The World”) and an even more synth-heavy version of Weather Report’s original fusion hit “Birdland.”  Creeping into this vast, relevant array of musical styles and dedications to the African tradition is a beautiful duet between Chaka Khan and Ray Charles entitled “I’ll Be Good To You.”  Everything in “I’ll Be Good To You” indicates that it is a product of the ‘80s, from the electronic drum sound to the pop-infused vocally layered chorus. Nonetheless, the melody is so infectious and Charles’ and Khan’s lead vocals are so sincere that the song transcends its era to be enduringly relevant and moving.  And unlike many male-female love duets (dare I say, “I Got You Babe”), the lyrics are surprisingly heartfelt.  Written by George Johnson, Louis Johnson and Sonora Sam, Charles and Khan sing, “The way we stand and the way we lie / The way we love and the way we cry / Of all these things there lies a tie / Makes me feel that it’s worth a try.”  For me, the greatest love lyrics reflect the honest struggle of relationships, and these lyrics remain both truthful and hopeful.  Singing these, Charles and Khan sound like a match made in musical heaven. 

Now to the bad parts: the last five songs of the album.  From the immensely boorish Brazilian “Setembro” to the naively utopian “Tomorrow (Better You, Better Me),” featuring the then twelve-year-old Tevin Campbell singing “I hope tomorrow will bring / Better you and better me,” the latter third of Back On The Block turns to tired clichés and overly emotional mush.  At least if the album ended with “Birdland,” my only complaint would have been that it was too short.  The last song on the album, “The Secret Garden,” (preceded by an utterly useless “Prelude To The Garden”) is the icing on this garbage cake.  In sharp contrast to “I’ll Be Good To You,” “The Secret Garden” is a ridiculously sentimental attempt to contemporize tear-jerking, R&B love-making ballads.  Containing over-the-top vocals set to flamboyantly layered keyboards and heavily-echoed drums, singers Barry White, El DeBarge, James Ingram and Al B. Sure sing such cliché-ridden lyrics as “Here in the garden where temptation feels so right / Passion can make you fall for what you feel” and “I can keep you satisfied / Come on, come on, come one / All night.”  By the end, I found myself thinking, what happened to this album?  It was a strange experience.  Unlike my usual listening experiences, I began ] absolutely loving this album and ended up hating it.

Despite the mediocre rating for Back On The Block, the first nine songs are well worth the purchase.  Clear, concise, and relevant, those songs substantially showcase Quincy’s Jones’ brilliance.  The last five exemplify him running out of good ideas.  In the liner notes, Jones states, “Back On The Block is music to take to the streets, to make love to, to reflect upon, to find hope in, get lost in and party to…” This is absolutely true.  Unfortunately, it also includes music to cringe to.

Rating: C

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2009 Michael Broyles and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Qwest Records, and is used for informational purposes only.