Xavier Dphrepaulezz was dead, at least creatively — and for a time seemingly in actuality, after a car accident left him in a month-long coma. The collision occurred shortly after the musician dropped out of a highly lucrative Interscope deal that had led to his disenchantment with the music industry, and by extension, songwriting itself. After recovering from the incident and gradually regaining the use of his atrophied body, Dphrepaulezz remained quiet in his home of Oakland, seemingly making peace with simply still existing. It wasn’t until the birth of his son that the man who had escaped death would discover just how much life remained in him, and begin to channel that renewed energy into music ignited with purpose and channeled via raw nerve. Christened with the moniker Fantastic Negrito, Dphrepaulezz became an impassioned pastor for the darker shades of the blues.
The Last Days of Oakland, Dphrepaulezz’s new LP released this past Friday, is a scorching amalgamation of soul, R&B, gospel, and rock and roll glued together with sheer grit. The album plays out like an urban Western, with Fantastic Negrito the wandering hero squaring off on the streets of his hometown and tackling themes of greed, lust, and survival. Yet the beating, bleeding heart of the record is a frustration with injustice that lays the undercurrent for every single one of its 13 tracks. The Last Days of Oakland is a portrait of struggle, with Dphrepaulezz painting in vivid, seething palettes of black and brown.
“Lost in a Crowd” is the song that made Fantastic Negrito known to the world when it won him NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest last year, and in the context of the album it comes across as a ferocious centerpiece sermon, complete with hand clap percussion and Dphrepaulezz’s call-to-arms ad-libs. The words sound like they’re burning in the singer’s throat before he jettisons them out as fireballs, and are emblematic of the deep tension he holds within him. Yet Fantastic Negrito’s story is not one of anger, but one of redemption. He’s alive, and thankful to be so, yet he’s demanding that his community finally get to live.
“In the Pines” reworks an American folk standard to present an updated perspective. “Black girl, black girl, your man is gone…and you’ve raised that child by yourself, then the police man shot him down” Dphrepaulezz sings, succinctly presenting a modern cliché — the American tragedy in the shadow of the unobtainable dream. As the sounds of an era largely bygone backdrop the type of catastrophe that should be anachronistic but is instead even more significantly contemporary, “In the Pines” proves difficult to swallow. If The Last Days in Oakland reminds me of my favorite Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Westerns in its attitude and atmosphere, it erodes the high-tailing fantasy elements of the plot to reveal a grim narrative, one not simply “based on a true story,” but built on the collective reality of a disregarded people.
And their voices are only receding further into the depths of a sanctioned blind spot. Strangers may be telling Dphrepaulezz that they love the “new” Oakland, but between rising nationwide xenophobia and classist aggression he can’t see an improvement from the old. The East Bay is “developing,” but Dphrepaulezz knows that means it’s merely stratifying. Oakland always contained multitudes; they are just becoming increasingly distinct as “restorative” efforts from above leave neglected the more ethnically diverse population below.
Which is why Dphrepaulezz is shouting so ferociously towards the sky — to make himself heard amongst a world that wants to drown him out. Fantastic Negrito is a superhero identity, one that works in clearly-defined mission statements sewed onto his sleeve. “Working Poor” is built around the cliché “I keep on knocking but I can’t get in,” yet injects vital life into the worn-out, although still relevant sentiment with airborne pianos, snapping drums, and guitars that squeal as they saunter through the song’s rustic delta roadway. It’s a combative intro to an album that refuses to blend into the background, and Dphrepaulezz isn’t dealing just a warning — if you don’t answer the door he’s going to break it right down.
The Last Days in Oakland is out now on Blackball Universe.