Posted May 12, 2022
While the term “magical” is often clichéd and overused, describing Tank and the Bangas as such is absolutely accurate. Whether you were introduced to the New Orleans fusion band in 2017 via NPR’s Tiny Desk competition, or in 2019 with their first major label green balloonthis is immediately clear and always true about the band: their energy is contagious.
On the third album red balloon, this continues to be true. Here, the band effortlessly mixes funk, jazz, hip-hop, R&B and spoken word to tell stories that are sometimes whimsical, but more often thoughtful and introspective. Right off the bat, it’s shocking how lead singer Tarriona “Tank” Ball disguises frustrated lyrics about politics, social media, climate change and mental health with upbeat melodies and a beautiful ballad. What’s even more impressive is the nuance and self-awareness the band displays in the production and structure of their stories.
After an intro by Wayne Brady, the band uses the catchy, driving jazz of “Mr. Bluebell” to address white America with a forced smile you can practically hear, broadcasting their long list of issues with the government, social media activism and desensitizing fear while appearing jovial and non-threatening. They continue to honey with the medicine on “Anxiety” and “Oak Tree,” as Tank’s crisp rapping vocals distract from the dark undertones of his lyrics. It’s not until the first line of the second verse of “Oak Tree,” “I say hello sunshine contemplating suicide,” that we realize they’re having fun at his expense.
Like Lauryn Hill of The Fugees, Tank is both a powerful singer and a dynamic lyricist. In addition to red balloonit’s her ability as both a whimsical rapper on songs like “Who’s in Charge of the Girls” and a vulnerable songwriter on “Communion In My Cup” and “Jellyfish” that glues the wide variety of sounds together.
However, Tank’s most compelling performance comes in the form of a speech on “Black Folk”. On a soulful R&B rhythm, Tank leaves the weight of the voice to the star singers Alex Isley and Masego to offer a clever and authentic ode to his community. With lines like “Black sounds like old songs, smells like good food / And it tastes like heart disease / But it feels like a maze at Jazz Fest,” Tank is clearly on a mission to express a feeling. complex, a feat she and the band probably couldn’t have accomplished through song or rap. The track manages to leave a sense of emotional satisfaction while anchoring the entire record with a sense of place.
red balloon undoubtedly contains songs meant to be heard live. While “Black Folk” manages to portray the personality of the band, the rest of the album fails to capture that charisma on stage. In their 2017 rendition of “Box and Squares” for NPR, there’s a moment when Tank stops singing to explain something to backing vocalist Anjelika “Jelly” Joseph: “You are like a hoop,” Tank sings. “A what, my daughter? Jelly responds. “I said you were like a hoop, like a hoop. I keep going around in circles with you,” Tank explains, continuing the performance. It’s an incredibly endearing moment that gets the small crowd laughing.
Aside from the album’s two most radio-ready songs—single funk bops “No ID” and “Why Try”—the entirety of red balloon would be better lived in concert. What is undeniable about Tank and the Bangas is their authenticity and talent. The New Orleans outfit features a unique sound and appreciation for funk and jazz music, similar to Jon Batiste, early Anderson .Paak, Noname and Thundercat, with odes to hip-hop groups like the Roots and Outcast. Although it’s probably not an album that will take them to the mainstream, it’s an album to be proud of. (Verve Forecast)