If the title The Last Days of Oakland sounds a bit overdramatic, rest assured: it actually matches the stakes delivered by Xavier Dphrepaulezz's debut full-length as Fantastic Negrito.
The singer and multi-instrumentalist, who was thrust into the spotlight last year after winning NPR's inaugural Tiny Desk Concert Contest, has a now well-documented back story: A difficult adolescence in Oakland in a family with 14 kids. Sneaking into rehearsal rooms at UC Berkeley to practice instruments. A red herring of a jackpot in the form of a major-label contract in 1996, which produced a slick R&B album the same year -- and which turned out to be a commercial flop and a creative disappointment for Dphrepaulezz. And then, the clear death/rebirth point on this classic hero's journey: a car accident that nearly killed the singer, putting him in a coma and temporarily rendering him unable to use his hands.
That Dphrepaulezz (the human) seems to deal in unlikely comeback stories in which beauty springs from darkness is far from lost on Fantastic Negrito (the artist), who has savvily wrangled this archetype into a battle cry. Fantastic Negrito makes punk-flecked roots music, unconventional blues songs about surviving against all odds.
The band has done its homework; the arrangements on The Last Day of Oakland are rooted in traditional songs and gospel, but with a layer of joyful experimentation and thoroughly modern chaos slathered all over the place. That deft mixture has, unsurprisingly, propelled the band into a spotlight of a different kind; they just wrapped up 2016 by touring internationally with Temple of the Dog, followed by a Grammy nomination.
In Fantastic Negrito's hands -- of which, thankfully, he regained use -- words about specific modern-day social injustices feel less topical and more, well, naked. "Sip fancy coffees / step over body / outside he door / him fancy condo / he she call po po / me sing too loud," he chants wryly in the danceable stomper "Working Poor," equal parts resigned and resistant.
As the record's title suggests, gentrification (and the havoc it's wreaking on Oakland) certainly loom large throughout. You'd have to be a fantastically stubborn optimist to expect The Town's artistic heartbeat to ever bounce back quite as fully as Dphrepaulezz's did -- but as the kickoff to a hopefully long and fruitful career, this record sure helps remind us that nothing worth fighting for ever comes without a struggle.