EVEN IF YOU have never witnessed a single scene of How to Make it in America, you will probably recognize the HBO show's ubiquitous theme song. "I Need a Dollar" is the sort of song that comes around once in a lifetime for a singer, a bona fide hit of both social importance and undeniable sheer catchiness that can highlight a career, even if the FM airwaves are oblivious to its very existence.
Aloe Blacc is the man behind "I Need a Dollar," the leadoff track to Good Things, which is easily the best recording in his 15-year run, and a surefire "album of the year" contender. Born to Panamanian parents and raised in Orange County, California, Blacc—real name Egbert Nathaniel Dawkins—cut his teeth behind a mic for Emanon in the mid-'90s, eventually graduating to a Swiss Army solo career of hiphop, R&B, electro, and everything else under the sun. But it was with Good Things that Blacc gravitated to his natural calling, a soulful sound custom-built for his heavenly singing voice.
"It took me a while to figure out where my voice fits best," explains Blacc, fresh off the plane from an extensive jaunt through Europe, his most successful to date. "After doing salsa music, dancehall music, hiphop, and trying to do some contemporary R&B, I've learned that my voice fits best in two places and one of them is soul music."
Residing not too far from the street hustle of Bobby Womack's "Across 110th Street" or the inner-city blues depicted in Gil Scott-Heron's Pieces of a Man, Blacc tugs the threads of urban decay, making his bold political statement a personalized one. Under the shadow of the Bush Doctrine, musicians addressed politics on a global scale, but now it's more fitting to take the fight to a block-by-block struggle. Far from street-corner proselytizing, Blacc peppers the vintage soul of Good Things with references that touch on the downward spiral of the working class ("Stop bailing out the banks and give the Franklins to me/I guess my piece of the pie ain't free," from "Life So Hard"), plus a few redemptive attempts to right past wrongs and find peace as well ("It ain't my fault, ain't nobody perfect/This ain't justice and I didn't do it/They're just talking but they can't prove it," from "Take it Back"). Even when things go Blacc's way on Good Things, he sings of them with a guarded optimism ("Not sure if anything that I've done really makes that much a difference/Well I hope it has for some," from "Green Lights").
As for the irony of finding success with a song that deals with the blunt desperation of absolute poverty (the aforementioned "I Need a Dollar"), Blacc understands the role his music plays. "I was influenced by the recordings I was listening to—of chain gangs in the South—and a lot of that music is call and response," Blacc explains. "[It's] very simple, very approachable, very folk. I think that is ultimately what attracts people. There's repetition of a colloquial cultural folk song in the chorus, and the lyrics touch upon things that are affecting the majority of people: money."
And while it ain't nothing for T.I. to drop a couple stacks in a song, Blacc is infinitely more frugal, attempting to make a connection far less fleeting than an appearance on the pop charts. "Any given year there's going to be a different money song, and I guess I was just lucky to be the guy for 2010."