“There’s good in the old Oakland, and there’s good in the new Oakland…”
Oakland, California is the integral foundation that has shaped every dimension of Xavier Dphrepaulezz, more publicly known by the pseudonym Fantastic Negrito. Through the tragedies, misfires, and trauma, his long-nurtured infatuation with music has granted him a myriad personal victories along the way. It’s no mere surprise that Negrito relies on the narrative of “the struggle,” as it is something that he has known and experienced all too well throughout his life.
One of fifteen children, Dphrepaulezz was raised in Massachusetts, primarily in a Muslim household. The son of a Somali-Caribbean immigrant who played traditional African music, his family relocated to Oakland when he was twelve. It was during this transitional period that the child who was birthed out of wholesome, strict traditions experienced the bleak realities and cultural vibrancy of Oakland in the 1970s.
During this transformative time in the city’s history, Oakland underwent several cultural, political, and social shifts, from the determination and heightened promises of the Black Panther Party to the emergence of trailblazing funk bands. And Dphrepaulezz absorbed each and every one of them. By his twenties, he spent time learning his musical craft, playing every instrument he could get his hands on and was destined to make moves.
In the 1990s, he found himself in Los Angeles, where he scored a million dollar contract with Interscope Records. He released the funk-influenced X-Factor, under his then-stage name Xavier in 1995. But his time hadn’t arrived yet and personal tragedies threatened to claim his life, including a near-fatal car accident in 2000, which would physically impact him for his entire life. In trying to recoup, he moved back to Oakland, working to put all of the pieces together and the journey was both challenging and rewarding. With the birth of a newborn son and new lease on life, his true musical inspiration came knocking on the door, and it was the Blues.
After garnering wide acclaim from several publications as well as releasing a handful of EPs, he finally delivers the full vision of his inspiration. The aptly titled The Last Days of Oakland is the life-affirming testimony of a man who certainly knows something about redemption, his city, and the world at large. Throughout the entire 13-song effort (interludes included), Negrito leaves no stone unturned, no fact unverified, and no experience hidden.
Drenched in the deepest modes of classic Delta blues, amalgamated with an organic blend of funk, soul, gospel, and rock, there is delectable subtlety and complexity in the musicianship present here. Negrito’s rugged and rough voice crackles against the audacious melodies that run throughout the compositions. There is an ‘old-soul’ ingenuity that lies in every word he enunciates and croons, as if he is a street corner poet, southern Baptist preacher, or bluesman, wise beyond his years, dropping wisdom in every breath. In fact, with closer listens, he perfectly fits and melds all three.
What’s astounding is that there is a generous clash between Black music styles of the past as well as the present, as Negrito weaves together several eras, stylistically, with a refined modern sensibility. But make no mistake. This is far from a contrived, faux retro production. The raw and unpolished nature of the album’s production style suits the intensity and authenticity of the topical ground Negrito captures here. And trust, some of it can be heavily intense, but no less vital to our weary times.
The opening interlude, the album’s title track, plays as an inspired infomercial, objective, and plea. Underneath Negrito’s muffled crooning and bluesy guitar strums is a smorgasbord of voices from Oakland residents interplaying with Negrito’s speech, in a direct call-and-response approach, on the problematic gentrification that is increasingly pervasive throughout Oakland. Negrito utters, “There’s good in the old Oakland, and there’s good in the new Oakland / let’s make a sandwich (it’s so expensive) / let’s make a new baby (working just to survive).” This may sound jarring for some, as Negrito draws you right into his world from the time you press the play button, but therein lies the beauty of what he’s presenting us with and how he presents it. This is his directive: we know times are bad, but let’s do something to resolve it.
The stirring, gospel-inflected blues funk of “Working Poor” continues the sentiment on Oakland’s stifling gentrification issue, as Negrito sings with heavy passion and intensity about our declining economy. The weariness that drips from the song’s most defining line: “Don’t sell your life” provokes you from every angle. From here onward, Negrito hits the listener with a tales that derive from his personal experiences and societal issues of the world.
Politically aware, he powerfully touches on institutional racism (“The N***a Song”), poverty (“Hump Thru the Winter”), capitalism (“The Worst”), and the plight of corruption (“Rant Rushmore”), all in a mighty, aggressively impacted stretch. He places himself at the very center of these subjects, with unapologetic disgust, despair, and fervor, not allowing you turn away from what he’s emoting. He knows full well that it’s certainly not for the faint of heart, as he taps into the sociopolitical centre of what has unraveled not only in his Oakland hometown, but more broadly, across American society.
Moving away from the political realm, Negrito displays an impressive level of depth when it comes to more emotional fare. Perhaps the album’s most obvious highlight comes with “Lost in a Crowd,” where he sings about seeking solace from the shadows of fear, frustration, and isolation. Performed in the vein of a rousing gospel hymn, Negrito emotionally transcends from unbearable agony to resilient grace through the song’s intense lyricism. The song may represent a compelling portrait of Negrito himself, as it summarizes his journey, in the light of ‘the struggle’—the pain and trauma of just existing in a world of superficiality while surviving. At the end of the day, “we’re just people, lonely people, you and I,” he tenderly sings during the song’s melodically delicate bridge.
Introspective, aggressive, and downright inspiring, The Last Days of Oakland is one engrossing statement—an enthralling piece of work that could only derive from its bruised, yet redemptive hero. Perhaps Negrito has established his resolutions while confessing the inner-workings of his own struggle, however, there is one key element of why this is a stunning achievement—it all derives from Negrito’s own authenticity. This is not watered-down, substance-free music tailor-made for easy consumption. This is warrior music that demands your full attention. While the musical approach may not be completely original and varied, its powerful dialect communicates directly and convincingly to the People and our desolate times. It’s the glory of the Blues after all, and we’re all the better for it.
Notable Tracks: “In the Pines” | “Lost in a Crowd” | “Nothing Without You” | “Working Poor”