Virgin [Release date 12.05.98]
Lenny Kravitz has always been hard to define; it’s entirely possible to imagine Kravitz in the crowd at Woodstock or strutting down a Parisian catwalk. Despite being effortlessly cool and the very embodiment of old school rock and roll – the bohemian musician has had to fight against a culture of expectation.
In 1989 when he released his debut album ‘Let Love Rule’, the record industry was eager to confine him to a box he didn’t easily fit into, as he related to the Evening Standard in 2019; “I was playing music that was rooted in rock ’n’ roll, which at the time they thought was white music. Of course we know that black people invented rock ’n’ roll. They thought I should be doing hip hop or R&B, and they thought I was talented but they did not want me to be making that music.”
While Lenny himself bristled at critics who described his music as “retro” or “throwback”, favouring the nobler “timeless”, there was always a consistency of sound in his early records.
Be it stadium anthems like ‘Are You Gonna Go My Way’, or the breezy Smokey Robinson soul of ‘It Ain’t Over ’til It’s Over’, a Lenny Kravitz album sounded warm and organic with real instrumentation and little in the way of synthesizers or drum programming. That is until his fifth studio album, rather conveniently titled ‘5’.
‘5’ is a transition record, similar to Prince’s ‘Around the World in A Day’ or David Bowie’s ‘Hunky Dory’, where the original parameters of the artists’ career are broken and they prove that they’re in the game for the long haul. ‘5’ was the record where Lenny Kravitz embraced technology, where studio voodoo like tape loops and keyboards were now permissible.
Album opener ‘Live’, with its Ohio Players influenced horn lines, may sound like classic Kravitz pastiche (channelling spirits from the past) but the second track ‘Supersoulfighter’ quickly tells the audience that ‘5’ will be a very different prospect.
The titular Supersoulfighter is spreading funk throughout the nations, the kind of cosmic troubadour George Clinton would dream up. Kravitz’s long time musical collaborator guitarist Craig Ross, puts down his axe to play mini-moog straight out of Parliament’s ‘Flashlight’ and soul diva Angie Stone shows up on backing vocals to do some blaxploitation style exclamations; “Super soul fighter’s coming!”.
Anyone who has been to a Lenny Kravitz gig would note that his audience skews heavily female and with breezy pop ballads like ‘I Belong to You’ in his arsenal, it’s little wonder why. While critics can be haughty about Kravitz’s simple lyrics, it’s this accessibility that has assured his continued success.
The image created of Kravitz as the apologetic, contrite and submissive lover, is doubtless the stuff of dreams for a proportion of his fan-base. While the rest of the audience can marvel that ‘I Belong to You’ is essentially a one-man band production with Lenny on vocals, guitar, drums, bass and…sand paper blocks!
Almost as a riposte to the universality of the previous track, ‘Black Velveteen’ goes very weird, very quickly with a Garry Numan-esque musing on our technological dependence; “Nice piece of kit, Electronic clit”. Processed vocals and mellotron accompaniment ensured it was quite unlike anything in Kravitz’s catalogue up to that point. ‘If You Can’t Say No’ continues this moody new wave theme, but also represents a misstep in the album’s marketing, as it shouldn’t have been the album’s lead single.
Luckily this was rectified with the super smash that is ‘Fly Away’, achieving the enviable quality of rocking hard but also appealing to pop audiences – ‘Fly Away’ has become a staple of the Kravitz live setlist. The hooky chorus and squelchy bass, arguably propelled Kravitz from highly regarded musician to out and out megastar.
Kravitz’s Mother, Roxie Roker was an actress well known to US audiences for her role in CBS sitcom The Jeffersons and Lenny enjoyed a close relationship with her. Roker died in 1995 and ‘5’ represented Lenny’s first opportunity to address her passing.
‘Thinking of You’ is a dreamy yet raw promise from a son to his Mother; that he will try “to be all the things that you wanted me to be”. The guitar has an almost pleading quality, with a long bluesy solo and Lenny’s falsetto has never sounded better. ‘Thinking of You’ may never have made the Greatest Hits package but is probably Kravitz’s most heartfelt record and above everything else on ‘5’ deserves reappraising.
Family is obviously important to Lenny Kravitz and the ode to his daughter Zoe, ‘Little Girl’s Eyes’ is a lesson in understatement – echoing production with sparsely deployed backing harmonies. That’s not to say that the second half of the record is just concerned with the internal, ‘Straight Cold Player’ is a dirty, instrumental funk jam with Kravitz’s live band at the time. Santana drummer Cindy Blackman shows her agility, while the horn section of Tom Edmonds and Harold Todd get to virtuoso.
The record originally ended with ‘Can We Find a Reason’, a spiritual sequel to ‘Let Love Rule’ but the 1999 special edition added ‘American Woman’, Kravitz’s cover of The Guess Who for the ‘Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me’ soundtrack. The infectious cover deserved to be rescued from soundtrack obscurity and is catchy as it is funky.
‘5’ was Lenny Kravitz’s biggest album to date and was certified platinum. The narrative surrounding the record seems to be that this is where Kravitz went pop and became too commercial.
The absurdity of this view is exposed by the weirdness of tracks like ‘Black Veleveteen’ or ‘Straight Cold Player’. Lenny could be “out there” but he also had a skill for the popular and why shouldn’t he put out a pop tune – not everybody could write a monster hit like ‘Fly Away’? ‘5’ is the record where Lenny Kravitz embraced all of his constituent parts and became whole.
Review by Phillip Beamon
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