Review by Andy Kellman
SkyBreak followed ManMade by almost exactly three years. During the intervening period, Lorenzo Ferguson assisted in the making of two Foreign Exchange albums, served as that group’s musical director, and contributed to releases from the 1978ers, Talib Kweli, Sy Smith, and fellow Detroit nativesJamall Bufford and Collective Peace. As on ManMade and the preceding SunStorm, the multi-instrumentalist works tightly with production and songwriting partner Phonte, who is among nine featured vocalists. Most of them are familiar to FE-related sessions and are also credited as composers, fitting into the album’s scheme — uplifted views of flings, falling in, out, and back in love — without lending it a muddled mixtape quality. Likewise, Ferguson and company continue to evangelize, with a modern perspective, late-’70s to early-’80s sophisticated funk and soul. Even with its pair of Phonte rap verses, including a slightly lewd smash-and-grab job pulled on “I Don’t Mind,” the album has much more in common with Rufus & Chaka‘s Masterjam or an Earth, Wind & Fire satellite project than it does with any given post-1983 commercial R&B recording. A couple voices previously unheard on a Zo!release arrive consecutively during the second, superior half. Undersung veteran Joi Gilliam lures on the frisky “Just Whatcha Like,” trailed by “Lifelines,” on which U.K. up-and-comer Dornik sings of romantic salvation with a DeBarge-like hushed sweetness. Another detail that separates this from previous Zo! output is the bounty of burbling synthesizers. As prominent as the thick bass guitar lines, they reinforce several songs. They’re deployed to most pleasurable effect on the Muhsinah-led “Packing for Chicago,” where Ferguson‘s keyboard makes Stevie Wonder-type low-end streaks that swim through steady percussion reminiscent of Herbie Hancock‘s similarly expectant “Come Running to Me.” Filled out with an instrumental dedication to Ferguson‘s father, who passed away during the album’s creation, SkyBreak is another step forward. Ferguson doesn’t allow his expanding knowledge and ability to overshadow his personal touch.
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