Imitation. It’s natural for an artist to be influenced by musicians of yesteryear and to mix the sounds of their heroes with their own original take. In the case of south Londoner Joel Culpepper’s debut album, his muses seem to be too apparent, that the tracks often border on pastiche. However, considering that the title of the record is seemingly a nod to a certain Beatles classic (Sgt Culpepper = Sgt Pepper), perhaps the obvious imitations of classics are deliberate after all.
Throughout Sgt Culpepper, Joel adopts the characteristics of other musicians; the “huhs” of James Brown against a funkalicious backdrop and the falsetto style of Prince, as well as the British-accented talking of Ghostpoet and the hazy vocals of Andre 3000. Yet the tracks themselves also borrow moments from particular songs without actually being samples: the trumpets from Michael Jackson’s ‘Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough’ (‘W.A.R’), the iconic high pitched moment in Kool & The Gang’s ‘Summertime Madness’ (‘Kisses’), Van McCoy’s ‘The Hustle’ (‘Return’) and the robotic vocoder of Daft Punk’s Harder Better Faster Stronger (‘Remember’). There are signs that this isn’t coincidental though, as Joel actually references titles and musicians inside his songs. On ‘Remember’, Joel sings: “song to the key of your life (acknowledging a Stevie Wonder album), on the brilliant standout track ‘Thought About You,’ he honours Shuggie Otis – the style of bells used Otis’ ‘Strawberry Letter 23’ feature in Culpepper’s songs – and it’s hard to deny that the way the title is sung on ‘W.A.R’ draws similarities to a certain track by Edwin Starr.
When taking away these tributes, what are we left with? Well Joel Culpepper is an artist with an abundance of impulsive energy that makes one think of him positively as a male version of Janelle Monae. He would be great to see live. Furthermore he has voice that is distinctively high (a pitch that is over-used on some occurrences such as on ‘Kisses’) that it would be interesting to see him perform. However his lyrics can be hit-and-miss.
Some of the poorest attempts include: “on this funky ride, there’s a chance we could collide” on the 1990s R&B vibe ‘Break’ and “a pink lunchbox, says he’s cold but never wears socks” on the otherwise respectable neo-soul track ‘Black Boy’. Nonetheless, Sgt Culpepper has tracks with bold production choices and some good emotional lyrics. ‘Tears of a Crown’ has a marching brass lift with humble yet defiant lyrics, the most rewarding track ‘Return’ features police surveillance speech within the Motown groove. The Tom Misch-produced ‘Poetic Justice’ features a conversation between Joel and a female friend that gives the album a a genuine south London atmosphere away from the American-heavy touches. In addition, the Outkast reminiscent ‘Dead Bodies’ borders on social commentary and features intriguing percussion, a voice-mail message and police siren sounds.
Joel Culpepper might be an artist that displays his inspirations a bit too transparently but this is often a typical trait of a debut album and artists tend to grow into their own on further releases. With some of the production ideas already on show, there’s a lot of promise for the future.