Creating hip-hop influenced soul is often a difficult river to navigate. Much of the time, the lyrics are too over-the-top to be taken seriously. Other times, the musical end falters, with the producer being afraid to fully commit to the proper aesthetic. However, the Jacksonville-based duo Stono Echo—comprised of producer Paten Locke and singer/musician Jay Myztroh—have found a way to make things work, as evidenced by their incredibly entertaining debut EP entitled Black Diamonds.
Locke and Myztroh first worked together on last year’s Food Chain album, Locke’s collaboration with homie/Full Plate Music co-founder Dillon Maurer. Myztroh had played much of the live music on the album, and after a studio session, he mentioned to Locke that he is just as good of a vocalist as he is an instrumentalist. That piqued Locke’s interest, and the two decided to explore collaborating from there. Black Diamonds is the fruit of their labor.
The EP reeks of funk and soul, as Locke and Myztroh split duties throughout the project. Locke handles things on the production end, including his masterful work on the sampler, while Myztroh handles the singing, as well as playing the keys and tenor saxophone. Myztroh uses his compelling, often gospel-influenced vocals to deliver insightful lyrics on a myriad of topics. Musically, Locke’s beats run from straight boom-bap to jazz-soaked grooves, but they always compliment the vocals without overpowering them.
Black Diamonds begins with “Workin,’” Stono Echo’s ode to the psychic and spiritual value of doing what you love. “There came a day my rate of pay took backseat to my goals,” Myztroh begins the song. “I work for me, or J-O-B’s have to enrich my soul / Evoke my gifts, uplift my spirits, skills, and knowledge stored / Time’s just too precious.” It’s not very often that you hear people singing about the emotional satisfaction that one gets from doing what they love, but Myztroh articulates the sentiment in a straightforward manner, adding, “If you love what you do and you love to put work in, it won’t feel like workin.’” Locke puts in serious, well, work behind the boards, smoothly chopping sounds and backing them with subtle strings and massive drums.
Like most soul artists, Stono Echo speak on the topic of love throughout Black Diamonds, both the pursuit and the loss. On the shimmering yet brief “Flash! Impact,” Myztroh examines his infatuation with the object of his affection. But the group tackles the other side of the coin on “Holdin,’” a funky horn-driven track where Myztroh exhibits the five stages of break-up grief. In between dusty horns and drums, mixed with samples of Busta Rhymes muttering and chanting, Myztroh goes from being angry at his love for wanting to leave him, to bargaining for her to stay, to pledging to “hit my knees and I pray to ya / Hail Mary, Queen Cheeba of the universe / Accept this adoration, swear I can put you first.” Myztroh wrings the angst and conviction of his powerful voice into the song, making it the most soulful entry on the project.
Black Diamonds features a trio of tracks dedicated towards engaging in discourse on social issues and working to making your voice heard. “Politrickin,’” which was first released days before the 2016 election, is an uptempo, jazzy, piano-laden track where Myztroh lambasts those who seek power by lying to the general population, devaluing the lives of the economically disadvantaged, and pushing a corporatized version of democracy.
On “SoapBox,” Myztroh stages an impromptu rally on record, channeling James Brown over a beautiful piano groove, advocating Black empowerment, an end to police brutality, and the death of the new Jim Crow laws taking hold in this country. “Yesterday (Another Day)” acts as a potent companion piece, as Myztroh describes a peaceful anti-police brutality demonstration gone awry, as cops brutalize the legal protesters. Over a restrained piano groove and a solid drum pattern, Myztroh describes the chaos of being tear-gassed by the authorities, then sings, “Well, it just seems like a trick to me, these choices of the free / Police occupy communities, body count increase.”
The EP closes with “Outer Limits,” an ethereal track where Myztroh finds himself contemplating his place on this planet. With layers of echo and effects, he sings about learning to think bigger and elevate his consciousness beyond the earthly plane. It’s an inspirational note to end things on, and further showcases the creativity of Myztroh as a singer and Locke as a producer.
Black Diamonds is an outstanding work that dodges all of the potential landmines that go along with combining hip-hop beats with soulful vocals. The only issue is that it’s too brief, clocking in at a little under half an hour. But there’s something to be said for collaborators keeping things on the short end their first time out. Hopefully Locke and Myztroh will continue this musical partnership, as they clearly have lots to offer.
Notable Tracks: “Holdin’” | “SoapBox” | “Workin’”