Roman GianArthur, OK Lady, And The Art of Borrowing With Purpose
“Derivative” is not the kind of moniker than most artists strive for. To many, it carries with it the implication of unoriginality, pulling back the curtain on the endless array of appropriated licks, reworked melodies, and borrowed lyrics that are central (and arguably essential) to so much of the music we love. “Derivative” is the descriptor we shy away from, preferring to keep our all-too-direct influences hidden behind closed doors
But then there is Roman GianArthur, proudly announcing his newest release, OK LADY, a EP of Radiohead and D’angelo reinterpretations. Across its five and a half tracks, GianArthur channels a hybrid of Thom Yorke and the relucktant king of Neo-Soul through a throaty snarl that is one part Miguel, one part Sly Stone, and one part entirely of his own making. To call OK LADY anything other than “derivative” would be a lie; but to take that as an insult to its substance would be an even greater error.
From its opening moments, as D’angelo’s croon whispers out of the speakers over the circular progression first heard on In Rainbows’ sleeper anthem “All I Need,” it becomes clear that Roman will not be taking a traditional approach to the cover album. In the convention of Stevie Wonder’s “We Can Work It Out” or Joss Stone’s “Fell In Love With A Boy,” the guitarist twists interpretation into its own form of composition. Only this time, rather than exchanging one style for another, Roman opts to fold the disparate genres into each other, blurring the lines between sample and cover, and all the while keeping his audience on the edge of their seat.
Roman is at his best when channeling the core of one song through the amplifier of another: the melody of “High and Dry” soaring to even greater heights while backed by a brilliant reimagining of “Send It On”; “No Surprised” afforded a new grit and air of urgency overlaid above the unmistakable edge of Questlove’s “Greatdayandmorning/Booty” break (not to mention Janelle Monae’s subtle yet undeniably powerful guest spot).
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the album is the fact that Thom Yorke’s jittery poetry remains shockingly evocative sung with such a soul-bent vocal. For myself, and I’m sure many others, a central aspect of Radiohead’s lyrical effectiveness is that awkward and unsure characteristic bleeding into every note of Yorke’s hauntingly thin tenor. And yet here, GianArthur wails through “No alarms and no surprises” as though it is Otis Redding’s final reprise of “Gotta gotta try…try a little tenderness,” reinvigorating the lyric without loosing any of the unsettling discontent that drives the original. It's a striking and powerful combination that many (including myself) likely would have doubted before hearing.
OK Lady is not without its faltering moments. When the identities of each paired song fail to coalesce into a unified whole, they are left instead to jostle back and forth between one another, as in the case of “PARANO:D”. Other times, an attempt to include vocal aspects of both artists causes the narrative of one lyric to careen blindly into another, as in the instance of ALL:NEED (though to the artist’s credit this remains one of the strongest tracks largely by virtue of its haunting arrangement). But these fumbles are brief, and rescued quickly by the next turn of melodic phrase, the next brilliant juxtaposition of harmony and vocal.
In the most literal sense, there is very little “original” material across OK Lady’s just-under-nineteen-minute runtime. But don’t let that stop you from giving it a listen. I’m willing to bet it’s still going to be some of the best music you’ve never heard before.