Fantastic Negrito’s first two albums, Last Days of Oakland and Please Don’t Be Dead, both won Grammys for Best Contemporary Blues Album. They included songs about social anxiety (“Lost In A Crowd”), recovering from a life-threatening car accident (“Night Has Turned to Day”), the impacts of gentrification (“Working Poor”), toxic consumerism (“Plastic Hamburgers”) and the homelessness crisis (“The Duffler”).
Now the Oakland native and Berkeley High alumnus has pushed himself to go deeper, veering his songwriting into uncharted internal territory with Have You Lost Your Mind Yet? The album is slated for a full release on August 14.
It’s Negrito’s most conceptual work to date. It’s also been the most personally challenging, he said, due to its overarching theme of mental illness.
“Not the mental illness that’s obvious, like dudes walking down the street talking to themselves in West Oakland. I’m talking about the one we are all silently experiencing, from this proliferation of information that I don’t think we’re really built to handle — a kind of mental illness we’re just kind of existing with every day,” he said. “I call it ‘stupid-speak’ and it’s pervasive in America. I toured on six continents last year. This is really exclusive to us. We’re wearing ignorance like it’s a virtue.”
Have You Lost Your Mind Yet? relates to the psyche, both literally and metaphorically. Negrito’s lyrics often travel down dark roads, but there’s a balance of shadow and light in the playing that achieves the intended effect of catharsis. And the consistent theme holds the project together as an album, not just a collection of songs: over 12 tracks, the artist draws a line between nuanced topics like the self-destructiveness of substance abuse, the paradox of toxic masculinity, the power of female sexuality and the misunderstood nature of societal outcasts and emotionally-numb outlaws.
Throughout, Negrito’s trademark falsetto and his penchant for deep-pocket grooves and earwormish hooks remain intact, as does his affinity for social commentary. But his genius is his ability to touch on uneasy topics in ways that feel universal. Instead of being judgmental or preaching from a pedestal, Negrito relates to humanity from a closer perspective.
Paranoia, fear and despair — all recurring themes throughout the new album — are feelings that Fantastic Negrito, born Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz, knows all too well. After running away from home at age 12, he was raised in foster homes. He got caught up in street life as a youth, and lost family members to gun violence. Negrito said the experiences left him jaded and narcissistic, and led to dubious life choices.
A turning point occurred in 2000, after a car crash left Negrito comatose and near death. He survived, and afterwards reinvented himself as a modern-day bluesman and self-proclaimed “black roots music” revivalist. The old Negrito — the charismatic egotist who chased women, hurt people and only cared about himself — now exists only as a lyrical reference point.
Although blues is still the basis of his sound, his approach to the genre is as inventive as his natty wardrobe (much of it garnered from thrift-stores). Blues tropes pollinate Negrito’s music, from mournful laments to organ-laced boogie woogie, but his modern take adds elements of rock, funk, soul, R&B and hip-hop. Vallejo artist E-40 graces one track on the new album, and the New Orleans-based group Tank and the Bangaz show up on another.
“I’m always gonna be like, into blues and all that, but I don’t wanna approach it from the same boring way that people have,” he said, adding that older artists have appreciated his new take on an old sound. “When I meet blues masters, they’re always like, ‘Hey man, thanks.’”
One of the album’s standout cuts, “How Long,” addresses the passing last December of up-and-coming rapper Juice WRLD, who fatally overdosed on prescription pills. That tragedy exemplified the type self-destructiveness that Negrito wanted to explore on his album.
“There’s something very sick about that,” he said of the overdose. “These things that you work for, and you dreamed about them, but yet there’s something missing still in your life that you need these prescription pills. And all of us can fall into that.”
The album’s anthemic, bouncy opener “Chocolate Samurai” was musically influenced by the Stevie Wonder classic “Higher Ground,” said Negrito. It describes a specific person (Negrito won’t disclose who) struggling to stay afloat. Rather than wallow in depression, their answer to stress and anxiety is to “get free tonight,” as the song’s chorus exhorts.
The freedom described in the song, said Negrito, is about not buying into the dominant value system and instead drawing strength from those closest to you. “Do you know your neighbor? That’s probably one of your most powerful allies, if you would just go talk to him. We used to have to do that, when we were growing up. That celebration is the medicine,” he said.
One of the album’s most poignant songs, “King Frustration,” was inspired by a chance encounter with a family member who’d sunk into drug addiction and prostitution.
“I was just driving down San Pablo near my studio and I saw her walking. Sometimes, people — the rhythm, the way they’re moving — it creates music in my head.” The song’s lyrics, he added, address the challenges of “being victimized by a system that allowed crack to be extremely prevalent in a community, which was already downtrodden.”
Personal relationships are also at the core of “These Are My Friends,” a quirky but infectious tune about true friends accepting each others’ flaws. Then there’s “All Up In My Space,” a song about respecting people’s boundaries, which feels eerily spot-on in a time of pandemic.
“I think this coronavirus has kind of exposed this thing I’m talking about,” said Negrito. “I felt like it was already happening. This thing shined a light on it. I’m looking around at people I know going through so much mental trauma — still standing upright and holding down a job, but just really out of it.”
The pandemic sunk a planned world tour for Negrito, but to hear him tell it, that’s not entirely a bad thing. For the first time in four years, he’s been able to spend the spring with his family instead of on the road. (Touring, it must be said, is also a type of mental anguish.) Negrito said the forced pause has him feeling “grounded,” raising chickens and growing his own food. As we spoke on the phone, he paused to note that a magnificent hawk was swooping down from the sky, hunting for gophers. He admonished himself for not capturing the scene on his phone, then quickly caught himself: “You don’t have to film every moment.”
What drives Negrito’s mojo more than anything these days is his sense of spirituality, a quest for soul-stirring resonance and deep-rooted feeling that lends gravitas to his recordings and makes attending his live shows akin to a religious experience.
“I always feel I’m connected to the ancestors when I make this music. That’s what made me walk out into the streets” to busk in his early days as a struggling artist, he said, “and that’s what made me continue to approach it the way that I do. I feel a very strong connection.”