Congratulations to Jon Batiste!

The bandleader of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, whose extraordinary talents are matched by his unmatched charisma, won Album of the Year at the Grammys last night.

I don’t put much stock in the judgment of Grammy voters. This year was a strange exception: Allison Russell, my favorite artist of 2021, had three nominations for Outside Child, my favorite album of the year — which was a pleasant surprise, even though she didn’t take home any prizes. I’m always delighted when excellence is celebrated at that glamorous, flashy event.

In honor of Batiste’s excellence, I’m reposting what I published in 2021 about this remarkable record.

The title track of Jon Batiste’s We Are is better than a blast of caffeine and sugar at getting me out of bed in the morning and launching me out into the world with a zeal to love my neighbors and do what I can to save the world with a smile on my face. Batiste has become such an essential part of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, its childlike spirit, its fount of everlasting improvisational inspiration… its soul. (It makes sense. Didn’t he win an Oscar for his contributions to Pixar’s Soul?) But it’s not just the marching bands and ecstatic inspiration of that opening song — it’s the whole thing. Batiste sustains a sense of divine inspiration as he reflects on the voices that have shaped him and motivated him throughout his life.

Many music critics who know more than I do about the history of the traditions in which Batiste’s roots run deep… they’ve been rejoicing over this record. I’ll let them get specific:

Josh Hurst, in his best of 2021 list, says that, when he listens to We Are,

[I]t’s clear that Batiste is actually pretty close to the center of several musical universes, uniting a swathe of Black music idioms (jazz and blues, hip-hop and R&B) into something kinetic, colorful, and purposeful. Loosely structured as a bildungsroman, the album traces Batiste’s journey from youthful innocence to a place of wisdom and advocacy. He is a polymath in the vein of Prince, but where the Purple One trafficked in kink, Batiste’s whole vibe is basic decency. And who couldn’t use some of that?

Here’s Jackson Sinnenberg at Jazz Times:

[We Are] remixes the last 400 years of Black American Music to dizzying and wondrous effect. ‘Tell the Truth’ crossfades the relentless punch of early-’70s Booker T. & the M.G.’s with honey-sweet string arranging that suggests the likes of Jimmy Jones. The horns drive the brightness into your brain until you come out smiling. On ‘Show Me the Way’ Batiste stretches his vocals to the heavenly heights of ’50s crooners like Little Anthony while seemingly taking cues from the Thundercat song of the same name, blending rumbling rhythms with the melty melodies of slow-jam R&B.

It’s an “Editor Pick” at Spill Magazine:

We Are is a stellar album that connects a rich level of tradition and modernity together proving Batiste is as steeped in classic gospel, soul, jazz, and funk as he is the pop and hip-hop of the last two decades. Furthermore, We Are is ties together a level of simplicity with sublime technical genius, making it a record that should be admired equally for its musicianship and intricate songwriting as for its ability to seemingly fit in with the contemporary music of today. If We Are demonstrates anything, it is that Batiste is peerless in his creativity and delivery. Often nostalgic for other eras and artists, Batiste remains truly unique as he joins the class of Kendrick Lamar, Anderson. Paak, and Gary Clark Jr. only in the sense that We Are is a record unlike anything else in the last decade and could only have been written by Batiste.

At AllMusic, Matt Collar walks through each track with wide-eyed admiration:

Using the best of the past to build toward a better tomorrow is a stirring notion that pervades the album, both musically and thematically. He draws upon the vigorous grooves of New Orleans funk pioneers the Meters with ‘Tell the Truth’ and crafts a buoyant, psychedelic-soul vibe with the help of author Zadie Smith on ‘Show Me the Way.’ One of the most vivid encapsulations of his old-meets-new sound on We Are is ‘I Need You,’ an electric amalgam of boogie-woogie blues and vintage hip-hop attitude — like an impossible combination of Little Richard and OutKast. Batiste’s genre-mashing reinforces the album’s theme of intergenerational wisdom, and it’s also wonderfully fun.