It’s not unreasonable to consider Cautious Clay’s new record ‘Karpeh’ as a radical reintroduction. Two years following the release of his debut single ‘Cold War’ in 2017, he achieved mainstream success when Taylor Swift interpolated the song on ‘Lover’‘s goofy hit ‘London Boy’. Previously, he’d won a fan in Billie Eilish following his remix of her breakout hit ‘Ocean Eyes’. Clay’s debut album, 2021’s R&B and pop-heavy ‘Deadpan Love’ would prove a satisfying, if reserved, first step for the performer. Speaking to NME at the time, he said he had “no idea yet” how comfortable he would be sharing personal moments in his music, his path as a songwriter somewhat uncertain.
This follow-up, which takes on Clay’s – born Joshua Karpeh – family name as its title, has offered a resounding answer to that proposition. The success of ‘Karpeh’ comes from Clay delving into roots and the backstory of his family’s lineage: the album’s three parts, ‘The Past Explained’, ‘The Honeymoon of Exploration’ and ‘A Bitter & Sweet Solitude’, unfurl like a multi-generational novel. These stories, however, are resolutely real and don’t duck a punch, unlike his namesake’s rope-a-dope in the ring.
The signing to Blue Note for ‘Karpeh’ feels significant, too. The iconic jazz label is the type that needs no introduction, its impact on the genre immediately recognisable having released seminal records by Miles Davis and John Coltrane among many, many others. The connection encouraged Clay to further embrace his skills as a multi-instrumentalist on vocals, flute, saxophone and more. Here, he’s joined by shining lights of the jazz world like acclaimed guitarist and labelmate Julian Lage and Pakistani vocalist Arooj Aftab.
‘Karpeh’ is an immensely realised and rich embodiment of his jazz influences, something that had felt sorely absent from his debut. ‘Ohio’ mines his childhood in Cleveland for inspiration, atop the kind of saucy bassline Thundercat would be envious of; ‘The Tide Is My Witness’ is meticulously arranged, a superb fusion of dexterous playing and his light pop melodies.
The through-line in his songwriting – centred on his family’s journey and history – that proves most arresting and memorable. On ‘Karpehs Don’t Flinch’, a stuttering sax solo is bookended by voice notes discussing Clay’s grandfather and the prejudices he faced towards his African heritage. In the final chapter’s ‘Unfinished House’, Clay nods to the tribulations of his paternal grandfather’s relationship with his marriage, children and the construction projects he left to flounder. These moments, struggles and joys give ‘Karpeh’ its potency.
Most pleasingly, it’s a project where everything has been allowed to evolve and align properly: Clay’s willingness as a songwriter to go to a place where he was once uncertain, and his courage to compose and lead with his most authentic playing yet. This is a spectacular achievement.
- Release date: August 18, 2023
- Record label: Blue Note