New Yorker Lenny Kravitz has carved out his own niche and established himself as one of the most significant artists of his generation. Renowned for his theatricality and his unashamed blend of rock, pop, soul and retro, Kravitz seemed to strike a chord from the outset as a following grew for his brilliantly accomplished music, much of it entirely self-performed and produced. By cutting out the middle men Lenny made himself the main man and between 1999 to 2002 he won an unparalleled Grammy Award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance four years in a row. In addition he has a string of other deserved accolades – American Music Awards, BRIT Awards and Blockbuster Entertainment Awards – though he is particularly proud to have been made an Officer of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France, an achievement that reminds one of his great European success and popularity.
While he’s been a bona fide star pretty much from the get go – his debut Let Love Rule was an overwhelming triumph – as far as his recordings are concerned he obviously didn’t make it by luck, rather years of hard work, the odd knock back and a determination to prove doubters wrong all assisted his path to the top of his craft.
Born in Manhattan’s Upper East Side in 1964, young Lenny was aspiring to music from an early age. Well supported by his family (his father was a jazz promoter and friends with Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan and Miles Davis, amongst others) there was always music in the house. Motown, rare groove, jazz and Philly Soul were domestic favourites and his mother, a successful actress, also encouraged him to widen his scope and familiarise himself with classical, opera and drama. In Los Angeles, where the family relocated for a while, Lenny become immersed in rock and progressive British music, giving him a rounded education in the whole kit and caboodle.
Returning to the East Coast Kravitz made demos in Hoboken studios and by 1988 he was ready to shop for a deal. Virgin offered him the most creative outlet and the sounds began to emanate. The debut Let Love Rule was an audacious blend of rock, funk and soul and with wife Lisa Bonet directing his first music video for the title cut and prestigious support slots with Tom Petty and David Bowie ensuing, the die was cast. Let Love Rule’s attractions spread by word of mouth. The album charted respectably high and would eventually sell over two million copies. It remains a well loved disc and anyone who hasn’t yet heard the many stand outs like ‘I Build This Garden For Us’, ‘Mr Cab Driver’ or ‘Rosemary’ is in for a rare treat.
It’s the perfect place to start discovering Kravitz and will surely send you straight to Mama Said. Somewhat less poppy than the debut this is a deeply satisfying melange of psychedelia and fine funk rock. The harder metal types had also pricked up their ears to the man, sensing an element of Jimi Hendrix in his flamboyant stage act and admiring his ability to master the basic tools of his trade guitar, bass, drums and keyboards. Such precocious talent didn’t stop Kravitz pulling off a mature suite of songs. Slash from Guns N’Roses guests here on ‘Always on the Run’ while the big hit single ‘It Ain’t Over til It’s Over’ was entirely self-made. Kravitz would like to have directed his video but left that to one Jakob Dylan. And the bass guitar on many of the other tracks? That’s Roger Waters.
Having friends in high places didn’t do Lenny any harm at all. He was on course to achieve his goals because of his talent, not in spite of it. It was also a case of, you ain’t seen nothing yet because third album, Are You Gonna Go My Way (1993) simply tore up the rulebook racing up charts and shifting by the Platinum load. Quite right too because it’s a classic, up there with Lenny’s own heroes like John Lennon, Prince and Hendrix. Classy ballads, reggae rhythms and the sweetest soul melodies abound. This is the kind of disc made for listening to anywhere from the dashboard of your car to the headboard in your bedroom. A sexy, sassy thing it won rave reviews and ensured that Kravitz’s ravenous fan base remained satisfied. And Lenny didn’t, as one might expect, keep all the glory to himself. His guitar partner Craig Ross delivers the goods too, co-writing the title cut and ‘My Love’ and decorating the centrepiece track ‘Is There Any Love In Your Heart’ with some blistering fretwork.
Having climbed the stardom ladder Kravitz certainly hadn’t peaked, either artistically or too soon. Typically, he turned the whole notion of fame on its head with the controversial Circus that lays about the business in general and life in particular. The compelling ‘Rock and Roll Is Dead’ was taken literally in some quarters but Lenny reckoned many critics simply missed his point – he was not being deadly serious. Incidentally The Artist Formerly Known as Prince upped the ante for Kravitz when he recorded a track called ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Is Alive (And It Lives in Minneapolis)’. Nothing like some healthy competition, especially in America, which needed gingering up. Elsewhere, Lenny took a few cool gulps and tackled some heavy religious affairs. Nothing if not brave. Because this album was a puzzle to many at the time it’s now worthy of a second look.
The aptly named 5 (recorded at Compass Point, Nassau) saw Kravitz embracing a lot of digital and electronic technology. His retro image had been overstated if truth were known, he is a contemporary artist not a relic, but he has never been averse to borrowing classic 70s colours and updating them. The lovely ‘Fly Away’ wouldn’t disgrace Shuggie Otis while ‘elong to You’ reminded one that Lenny had a deep love for melodic reggae. But of course ‘Fly Away’ is the song that British audiences identify with. It became an anthem in December 1998, topping the UK charts. So successful was 5 that it was soon bumped up with Lenny’s next single, a cover of ‘American Woman’ (by The Guess Who) which features in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Two more Grammies ensued.
What better way to usher in the year 2000 than with a Greatest Hits? Lenny did and then found he’d got a genuine monster on his hands. Greatest Hits has itself sold over 21 million copies to date, an extraordinary achievement until you start to consider the ingredients in the running order. This is classic pop music and a soundtrack for the new age.
Maintaining form with Lenny, Lenny went out on a limb again with Baptism which though it reverts to some of the classic rock tropes of earlier days also majors in hard hitting, adult problems. Having shelved plans to make this an all-out superfly funk soul thang Lenny found he had more pressing affairs to confront. On ‘Where Are We Runnin’?’ he addresses the problems of the rock and roll star lifestyle. ‘Storm’ is a reworking of a song that Lenny gave to Michael Jackson but it never made the cut so he rescued it and with rapper Jay Z turned the track on its head. Another strong disc, Baptism also contains the hit ‘Lady’ (written for Nicole Kidman), and the poignant juxtaposition of ‘Minister of Rock ‘n Roll’ and ‘I Don’t Want To Be A Star’, which seems to address his own career flight as he hit his 40th birthday.
Four years later Kravitz posited It Is Time for a Love Revolution. A fantastic slew of alt. rock, psychedelia and his hybrid rock and soul, his eight studio album is available as an Expanded Edition with bonus cuts from earlier discs, interviews and 5.1 Surround Video material on ‘Let Love Rule’ and ‘Rock and Roll is Dead’. Must hear cuts are the power ballad ‘I’ll Be Waiting’, the after-hours and atmospheric ‘Dancin’ Til Dawn’ and the title track ‘Love Revolution’ that turns up the funk button to eleven.
That’s not all of course because apart from the iTunes Live exclusive there is the 20th Anniversary Edition of Let Love Rule, a deluxe expanded 2-disc set including Lenny’s live version of ‘Cold Turkey’, some charged performances of ‘Mr. Cab Driver’ and ‘Blues for Sister Someone’, an 11 minute ‘Let Love Rule’ and a great assault on Hendrix’s ‘If 6 was 9’. Pretty essential. Same goes for Mama Said (21st Anniversary Deluxe Edition), which is packed with demos and alternates. An updated joy. As often in this series there’s also the chance to discover the artist via the 5 Album Set – Lenny’s opening handful. Nuff said.
Are you gonna go his way? Seems like a pretty good idea.
Words – Max Bell