Black Pumas Are a Vibe on 'Chronicles of a Diamond'

BY Vernon AyikuPublished Oct 31, 2023

Black Pumas' sophomore album Chronicles of a Diamond fuses Motown, neo-soul and East Coast hip-hop into a blend so sonically and universally appealing that your first instinct will likely be to find its flaws. Pulling from a wide range of sonic sources, the Austin, Texas duo — former Santa Monica Pier Busker Eric Burton and award-winning guitarist and producer Adrian Quesada — broke into the industry with their 2019 self-titled debut, boasting an already polished and cohesive sound that felt tailor-made for awards show performances and heavy rotation from your parents. Together, the duo straddle the line between artistry and commercialism, spreading it so thinly you'd think they stole the foundation for their songs from the vault of Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye. Chronicles of a Diamond retains the focus-grouped polish of their debut but delivers a sophomore album that is slower, more intentional and more character driven.  

Being a psychedelic rock group, Burton and Quesada are masters at painting scenes without words. If their debut was coloured with bold dark tones for a jazzy dive bar, then Chronicles of a Diamond is its vivid mid-tone foil, made for a summer night drinking in the park. The delivery is different too — listening to "Ice Cream (Pay Phone)," you can hear Burton's growing confidence as a songwriter and vocalist. While his vocal performance on Black Pumas was textbook and clean, Chronicles of a Diamond finds Burton leaning into looseness and flow, taking more risks with his range and held notes. The best example is in the first verse of "Ice Cream (Pay Phone); "Hey there, little darling, can I get you back at my home? / Stay gold, little darling, and I promise you that I won't go / Go go now, uh, too long." Scaling his upper register and letting the notes stretch like elastic bands, Burton sounds more playful and inviting than ever. 

While Burton's sharp vocal performances and traditionalist songwriting have always been the duo's greatest strength, the professional-grade varnish is a double-edged sword. Truer on their debut than on Chronicles of a Diamond, Black Pumas are so polished and technically sound that they can feel void of character despite Burton's wily charisma. Although songs like "Mrs. Postman," an ode to blue-collar workers, pulls the blinds back a touch, Burton and Quesada have little interest in revealing themselves on any personal level. Instead, the focus of the pair always seems to be on setting a mood and creating a state of controlled euphoria. 

Undoubtedly, the best thing about Chronicles of a Diamond is its intentional shift away from the obvious successes of its predecessor. Burton and Quesada could have easily rested on their laurels and delivered more of the same, but they instead chose to build on the trust of their audience to deliver a slower burn, a record that lets the duo stretch their legs slightly without divulging too much of themselves. Like filmmakers at the helm of an arthouse horror, Burton and Quesada are patient with their payoffs, easing into high points and letting a song's most exciting moments sing in the final one or two minutes. An excellent example is "Angels," a five-minute blues and R&B ballad that explodes near the end after starting low and slow, with long, loping piano and guitar riffs holding the tension. Burton's closing vocal performance is a stand-out, and the track features some of Quesada's most dynamic production.  

It's still a bit distant and aloof — and ultimately too tame for its own good — but Chronicles of a Diamond finds the band heading in more interesting directions. It is, in every sense of the word, a vibe. 
(ATO Records)

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