Any self-respecting student of rock history can tell you that the music is rife with crypto-mystic connections and scarily prescient prognostications. In his 1970 tome The Aesthetics of Rock, critic Richard Meltzer ferreted out scores of them, arguing, for instance, that Chuck Berry predicted the rise of African nationalism when he sang ”It’s way too early for the congo/So keep a-rockin’ that piano” in 1957’s ”Rock and Roll Music.” Using Meltzerian logic, I contend that Patti Smith foresaw the coming of Lenny Kravitz in her 1978 song ”Rock N Roll Nigger.” Consider: In that hard-charging tune about renegades and underdogs, Smith yells ”Lenny!” — exhorting a certain Lenny K(aye) to sing a verse about a ”black sheep” who ”got big” and is ”gonna get bigger.”
When he released his first album in ’89, Kravitz — half African-American, half Jewish — did, indeed, seem a black sheep. Back then, it wasn’t unusual for critics to dismiss ”Mr. Lisa Bonet” (a snide reference to his actress ex-wife) as a glib, modestly talented copyist shamelessly cribbing from obvious ’60s/’70s role models like John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Curtis Mayfield, and Sly Stone. Yet despite such naysaying, over the years Kravitz has continued to get bigger. His slow-but-steady march toward superstardom reached a new plateau when his Greatest Hits, released in 2000, racked up U.S. sales of 3 million.
Kravitz’s latest album is called Lenny. It’s an apt title, since it’s pretty much a one-man show, with Kravitz producing, writing, and playing almost everything. The opening track, ”Battlefield of Love,” sets the tone. It’s built around a rudimentary guitar riff worthy of Grand Funk Railroad — rawk at its most basic and unadorned (although Lenny does toss a tasty wah-wah solo into the mix). The stripped-down approach works well throughout, whether on a plaintive ballad like ”Believe in Me,” which sounds like a low-tech Seal song, or a gritty rocker like ”Dig In,” the raucous first single.
Lyrically, Kravitz is still positing himself as a dreamy New Age post-hippie, with predictably banal results. ”Where’s the love?/What is this world we live in?/Where’s the love?/We’ve got to keep on giving,” he sings in ”Stillness of Heart.” Thankfully, such drippiness is offset by the amusingly Chuck Berry-ish story line of the hard-charging ”Bank Robber Man,” which is based on a real-life incident in which the star was mistaken for a criminal and busted by Miami police officers last year. ”Do you think that I’m the one that did it/Just because I’m tan?/Just then the officer at hand said/’I don’t give a damn that you are in a rock and roll band,’ ” Kravitz sings, and for once the social commentary doesn’t feel contrived.
While it’s hard not to wish that Kravitz’s music was just a few degrees better than it actually is, he has improved over the years. You can still hear the Beatle-isms in a song like ”Yesterday Is Gone,” but it no longer feels like he’s consciously trying to rewrite ”Tomorrow Never Knows.” Ironically, in a musical arena dominated by rap-metal and teen pop, his retro-rockist aesthetic is unexpectedly refreshing. Who knows? Maybe his freshly-minted ’70s nuggets will strike today’s teens as brand-new bolts of satori.
As with most artists who dabble in pastiche, from Sha Na Na to the Strokes, a patina of unintentional burlesque hangs over Kravitz. He can be forgiven his absorption in classic rock and funk forms because it’s obviously heartfelt; he really works at being the electric-gypsy love man for the new age of Aquarius. Still, one doesn’t become a Jimi Hendrix just by dressing like him. And few members of the rock cognoscenti are likely to argue that, even on his best day, Kravitz comes within spitting distance of the achievements of Jimi, John, Sly — or, for that matter, the Guess Who. (The guy did, after all, have a huge hit a couple of years back with the most ham-handed, leaden version of ”American Woman” imaginable.) If your standards aren’t unrealistically high, you can count on Lenny to deliver dependably hooky rock music in the tradition of past heavyweights. And if you can’t dig it — well, blame Patti Smith.