Back in mid-2010, Lenny Kravitz thought he had his ninth studio album well in hand. The follow-up to “It’s Time for a Love Revolution” (2008) was, he says, “a very funky album, really interesting,” and pretty much completed. Then things changed.
“As I was finishing that other (album),” Kravitz recalls, ‘`I started writing these other songs. They were coming out of the blue, and they had nothing to do with what I was doing. At first I figured, `Well, I’ll put these aside for now and deal with these later,’ and they kept coming, one, two, three, four of them. And I was dreaming a lot of the music. It was just coming to me, and it was really fluid. It just felt like, ‘You need to do this now.’ ”At that point,“ he says, ”you can either follow your plan or your ego or whatever, or you go where the creative spirit is taking you – and I always follow that. So I had to say, ‘Well, OK, I guess this is where I’m going,’ and I went on to make ‘Black and White America.’“
The 16-song album, which Kravitz produced himself and on which he played most of the instruments, still has its funky spots, including the first single, ”Stand,“ and the ”old-school jam“ ”Super Love.“ But the other tracks take Kravitz far afield, from the hard-riffing ”Rock Star City Life“ and ”Come and Get It,“ which the NBA has used for promotional television pieces, to the airy ambiance of ”I Can’t Be With You,“ the psychedelic feel of ”Sunflower,“ which guest-stars Drake, and the reggae overtones of ”Boongie Drop,“ a collaboration with rapper Jay-Z and DJ Military.
It covers a great deal of ground, in short, but that comes naturally to Kravitz, in part because he’s a product of the ”Black and White America“ he sings about in the title track. “I’m completely schizophrenic, and I love that,“ says the 47-year-old singer/songwriter, who lives in Miami but also spends time in the Bahamas, where he recorded some of the album. ”I’ve tried to make a record that sort of has one sound throughout, and I just can’t do it. When I go left, I want to go right. When I go up, I want to go down. “I have so many musical styles inside of me,” he says. “Growing up, I listened to every kind of music and it’s in me and it’s just the way I am, so the albums always come out like that, all over the place.”
Kravitz was born in New York to Sy Kravitz, a white, Jewish producer for NBC News, and Roxie Roker, an African-American/Bahamian actress best known for playing Helen Willis on “The Jeffersons” (1975-1985). He spent time at his parents’ home on Manhattan’s affluent Upper East Side, but also at his material grandmother’s home in Brooklyn’s hardscrabble, majority-black Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood.
“Race was never an issue to me, although obviously it was all around me and I knew about it,” Kravitz says. ‘`I grew up in a household where I knew that my father looked different from my mother, but I didn’t think anything of it, merely because my parents’ friends at that time in New York City, which would have been the late ’60s and early ’70s, were artists, musicians and painters and writers and directors and poets, and a lot of those people were dating outside their race or married outside their race. So, when people came over, our apartment was full of mixed couples. Some of them matched, but a lot of them didn’t. ”So it was never an issue to me, and it was never put in my face until I went to school and other kids saw my parents and made an issue of it.“ The degree of separation became more pronounced in 1974, when the family moved to Los Angeles so that his mother could do ”The Jeffersons.“ ”People in L.A. were very cliquish,“ recalls Kravitz, who attended Beverly Hills High School. ”If you went to the cafeteria at lunch, the black kids were in one corner and the sort of rock-‘n’-roll kids were in another corner and the sort of nerdy kids were in their own corner and the Mexicans were in one corner … I would float between everybody, because that’s the way I was.“
For Kravitz – who had started playing drums at 5 and gradually picked up other instruments, as well as spending three years with the California Boys Choir – this dislocation actually proved beneficial. ”Because I had friends in all those groups,“ he explains, ”I listened to everything and to every kind of music, and it’s in me like that. It’s just the way I am, so my music always comes out like that, all over the place.“
Having as a teenager befriended and been mentored by the singer Teena Marie, Kravitz convinced his father to let him apply his college money to recording, working on a demo tape that landed a recording contract in 1989. His debut album, ”Let Love Rule“ (1989), went gold. Its successor, ”Mama Said“ (1991), went platinum and ”Are You Gonna Go My Way“ (1993) soared to double platinum. Kravitz has sold some 40 million albums worldwide, notching four Grammy Awards and seven Top 10 Billboard chart hits, including ”Are You Gonna Go My Way“ (1993), ”Let Love Rule“ (1989), ”Fly Away“ (1998) and a remake of the Guess Who’s 1970 hit ”American Woman“ for the soundtrack to ”Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me“ (1999).
He sees ”Black and White America“ as a career summation of sorts. ”I think it really shows where I come from,“ he says, ”and it just feels like … Well, all the records are personal, so I can’t say that this one is more personal than the others, but I think this one just feels right for this time. I think it tells more of my story, and I think it gives
people a little more insight into me and my life.“ ”Black and White America’s“ title track, of course, is key. The song was inspired by a documentary about polarized race relations in America. ”It just astounded me that people in this age, at this point in time, could be so truly backward in their attitudes,“ Kravitz says. However, it was actually the song ”Push“ that, well, pushed him away from the funk album he had nearly finished and into what became his current release. ”I live in an Airstream trailer on my beach,“ Kravitz says, ”and I dreamt that song. I went to the studio, which is right behind the trailer, that morning and put that song down. Then came ‘Looking Back on Love’ and then ‘Black and White America,’ and when that came I knew that was going to be the central track, the title track, and that’s when I didn’t look back and just followed the music.“ The first single, ”Stand,“ has an especially personal connection for Kravitz. ”It was written for a very dear friend of mine who was paralyzed from the waist down because of an accident,“ he explains. ”I wasn’t in the country at the time with the person, and I wanted to give this person some positive words and something to just continue to listen to to help motivate them. It was like, what could I do? And what I could do is just give some positive words. “And now, happily, a year and something later, that person is on their feet again, which is a real blessing.” Kravitz’s longtime guitarist Craig Ross helped on parts of “Black and White America,” as did New Orleans horn player and bandleader Trombone Shorty. But it’s the guest appearances by Drake, Jay-Z and DJ Military that have caught the most attention, especially from fans who have been waiting for Kravitz to bring more rap into his music.
“It’s all music, you know?,” he says. ‘`I only go where the music takes me, so, if I hear it in the track, I’ll do it. I won’t do something for the sake of, ‘Well, this is hip now.’ ”When I wrote ‘Boongie Drop,’ I heard a rap in the middle,“ Kravitz continues, ”and I immediately heard Jay’s voice and we had collaborated twice before, so I called him and, when I went to New York, I put him on the track. And then I got on the phone with Drake for (“Sunflower”) before he had even heard the track, and he said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it. I’m a fan and I love your work and I would love to be on it.’ So that was cool. “If I feel something, I’ll do it, and it’s been cool, these collaborations.”
Overall, the singer/songwriter is excited to still be excited. “I’m just happy that I’m 21, 22 years in on this and I’m still just as hungry as when I made ‘Let Love Rule,”’ he says. ‘`I’m still just as inspired and excited, and to me that’s a gift, some people become jaded and tired and not inspired anymore, and they don’t want to do it anymore. ”And that’s cool,“ Kravitz says. ”It’s not a race. I just feel blessed that I’m in the place where I am, because I love making music and I just feel really fresh.“