The well-publicized story about From the Corner to the Block is that rappers provide the vocals on the new Galactic album, describing the corner as a nexus of contemporary street life. The rappers demonstrate an old school emphasis on rhymes and lyrical dexterity, and they’re more interested in the texture of life than they are in boasting about how hard they are. By changing the subject matter, the album shows that hip-hop’s shortcomings aren’t intrinsic, but the product of limited imaginations. By changing voices constantly—leaning heavily on artists from the Quannum label—From the Corner to the Block also suggests that hip-hop probably works best as a singles market.
As a band that can roll out grooves over its morning Wheaties, Galactic sounds right at home, and if anybody asserts hardness here, it’s Galactic. Nowhere is that clearer than in “Tuff Love,” an instrumental that puts Trombone Shorty’s trombone in the trenches with Stanton Moore’s muscular beat, Jeff Raines’ distorted guitar and Robert Mercurio’s dark, wiry bass sound. That track and “Second and Dryades” update New Orleans sounds—the latter backs Monk Boudreaux with looped percussion that modernizes the Mardi Gras Indian sound—and present Galactic and the “lead” voice on equal footing.
On the other hand, the band doesn’t sound like it’s driving the car on the title cut, which is dominated by Juvenile and the Soul Rebels, and depending on the track, that issue crops up in greater and lesser degrees throughout the album. Obviously, the band makes every track move, but in a vocal-dominated form, it’s hard not to hear the lyricists and rappers as the people who give the tracks definition. It’s a brave and generous gesture to give that prominence to Lyrics Born, Gift of Gab, Boots Riley and Ladybug Mecca, but rather than sounding like a meeting of equals, Galactic sounds like the guest on its own album.
That said, From the Corner to the Block is a very good, very funky hip-hop album, and in a sense, Galactic’s fingerprints are still evident on it. Rather than expressing itself in the most conventional way—songwriting—Galactic asserts itself by gathering the artists it admires, gathers the musicians it wants to work with, and salutes the music it listens to. That’s a subtle way of thinking about an album, but in a communal genre like funk, perhaps the community a band forms is the highest form of definition.