Published Oct 13, 2016Hailing from Oakland, California, the funky gentleman born Xavier Dphrepaulezz is on a mission. Purveyor of a modern-minded bluesy black roots music sound, the man who calls himself Fantastic Negrito commands attention onstage.
Fantastic Negrito's present standing in life represents a fascinating second act of sorts. He was a major label act by the mononym Xavier in the mid-1990s, pushing a neo-soul sound with a definitive Prince-meets-Sly Stone type of style. His debut album bombed and, sick of the industry nonsense, he quit the biz. Life changed when he was involved in a near fatal accident that resulted in him being in a coma for three weeks; it's an experience that changed him physically and spiritually. He's a soul phoenix, though; Dphrepaulezz rose from his own personal drama to gain underground credibility, then wider notice by way of his recent 2015 win of U.S.-based broadcaster NPR's second annual Tiny Desk Contest.
As Fantastic Negrito, he is reborn, an artist who's found his calling — again. His recent The Last Days of Oakland is a revelatory record, a 13-track effort that draws on themes of poverty, love, racism and societal disenfranchisement. His songs have agency and cry out with urgency, and he and his four-piece backing band delivered blues, funk, gospel and soul last night (October 12), his first performance in the country.
"Is Toronto a romantic city? Good, then you'll hate me," he bantered between sets. "My idea of love? I like the dark side of love."
Onstage, he comes charismatically correct. He's free-spirited, benevolent, a little chaotic, without regard for what others might expect of him. A slender mix of Prince, Michael Jackson and James Brown in terms of showmanship and dramatics, musically, Fantastic Negrito is heavily influenced by the old delta blues acts — think Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, Skip James.
He guided the crowd through his blues-roots-rock-soul mindset by way of tracks such as "In the Pines," "Working Poor," "An Honest Man," "Rant Rushmore" and "About a Bird." Then, after making the requisite "Canada is cold" commentary, he played the bluesy "Hump Thru the Winter," a hot number with an equally smouldering social message. The socially aware artist hit us with a new cut too, "Dope Fiend Drama," referring to the dialogue between the current presidential candidates as "two dope fiends arguing on a corner."
Passion guides Fantastic Negrito: "I'm in love again," he crooned on "An Honest Man." Last night, it was with an enraptured Toronto crowd, and it was a reciprocal feeling, for sure.