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Musical innovators or shameless exploitive hacks? That seems to be the central question revolving around Jamiroquai and especially its leader Jay Kay. Their deeply 1970s-influenced style has definitely brought awareness of the past greats to a new generation, but critics say they're (literally) pale imitators, unable to create their own sound. Perhaps the scrutiny wouldn't be so great if either A) they weren't a million selling act or B) Jay Kay weren't so flamboyant. In the end, much like KC and the Sunshine Band, they are victims of their success and being a dance band fronted by white guys.
Jamiroquai caused an immediate sensation among rare groove fans upon the release of "When You Gonna Learn" in 1992. Evoking memories of an unreleased 1975 Stevie Wonder cut, the buzz was so strong that the band was able to parlay that one song into a multi-album deal. The resulting debut Emergency On Planet Earth was packed with so many references from 1970s artists that some wondered if the group shouldn't be sharing royalties. The lyrics were peppered with Jay Kay's unique sense of social consciousness: the self-explanatory "Revolution 1993" and the title cut, whose sentiments were questioned once Jay Kay displayed a penchant for gas-guzzling sportscars. Politics aside, the album was an unqualified hit, and pretty soon everyone could recognize his hat collection and the didjeridoo, which was their trademark instrument.
They returned with the introspective and laid back Return of the Space Cowboy, which saw Kay trading in his Wonder influence for Roy Ayers. Mellow groovers like "Morning Glory," "Half A Man," and "Mr. Moon" proved the band had mastered its sense of mood, while "Manifest Destiny" found Kay wrestling with being a white superstar in a musical universe dominated by blacks. Even critics had to give it up for them and it remains many people's favorite Jamiroquai album.
With Travelling Without Moving they started to crack the elusive US market. Aided by the video for "Virtual Insanity," it went gold in the States. This album also marked the group's shift towards recapturing the essence of classic disco on "Cosmic Girl."
Before the next album was recorded, bassist Stuart Zender left the band, and they were forced to familiarize themselves with a new one on the fly. Synkronized provided the full spectrum of the Jamiroquai sound: the boogie anthem "Canned Heat," furious funk on "Supersonic," space grooves of "You May Think You're Living In Heaven," and some pointed jabs at Zender on the closing "King For A Day."
By this time they were so large that the likes of Masters At Work and Phil Asher were lining up for remix duties and they were constant fixtures on dance playlists. You can argue that the now-patented Jamiroquai formula hasn't changed since the third album, but their ability to generate body-moving grooves is undeniable. History will likely be kinder to Jamiroquai than today's critics.
Jamiroquai's Deepest Grooves
On Planet Earth (Columbia, 1993)
of the Space Cowboy (Work, 1994)
Without Moving (Work, 1996)
A Funk Odyssey (Sony, 2001)
Copyright ©2001 B. Graff. All rights reserved.