It's not something that jumps out at you right away. But dig deeper, and the evidence is all there: Lenny Kravitz is one of the most conservative rockers out there. Who else writes so pervasively (and so frequently) of such time-tested themes as love, religion and family? And though he'll likely never challenge Michael W. Smith at the Dove Awards any time soon, his righteous sense of values has always been crucial to his ever-evolving enigma.
"People are going to think what they want to," Kravitz says. "And a lot of times in the media they'd rather discuss what I'm wearing or who I'm dating -- all this superficial stuff that outweighs my art. They don't want to talk about what I'm saying on my records. I'm giving my thoughts and ideas on life and spirituality. It's simple. What I'm saying is all about love and God and people and positivity. I'm not like Motley CrYe, singing about girls all the time -- no disrespect to them."
All of which might amount to so much useless neo-hippie dogma if Kravitz's vicious mixture of rock and funk wasn't so effective in ramming home his universal message. Indeed, the maturity and vision of his latest effort, 5, is a resuscitating blast of optimism after Circus, the dark, brooding 1995 opus that found him on edge, both in and away from the studio.
"I enjoy that record more than I used to," Kravitz says now of Circus. "But making this one, I felt very open and excited to record again. I didn't have anything specific in mind; I just wanted to have a good time in the studio. And whatever comes out, comes out. That's pretty much how I make all my records. They're like diaries for me -- things that were on my mind at the time. So it's interesting to hear them later."
Lenny Kravitz's upbringing is a study in contrasting influences. Born in New York City to Jewish television producer Sy Kravitz and Bahamian actress Roxie Roker (Helen from TV's The Jeffersons), the 34-year-old singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist showed an early interest in pop and soul music. But he also had serious vocal training as a singer in the California Boys Choir. And though he never wanted anything more than to be recognized on his own merits, Kravitz first came to national attention as the freaky spousal accouterment of actress Lisa Bonet, who was then riding a wave of popularity as the second oldest daughter on The Cosby Show. Kravitz's 1989 debut, the mostly DIY Let Love Rule, led to carping from critics, many of whom saw him as an immature, unfocused copycat aping influences from Hendrix and Prince to the Beatles and the Stones (both Rolling and Sly). That regurgitative tag haunts Kravitz to this day, while his bell-bottoms, beads, frilly vests and dreadlocks (since shorn, though the singer promises they'll be back) invite every sort of retro slag.
And while his marriage had ended, the nostalgia jibes continued with Let Love Rule's 1991 follow-up, the funkier Mama Said, which chronicled the dissolution of his relationship to Bonet (the two have a daughter, Zoe, and remain very close) and spawned the hit singles "It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over" and "Always on the Run." But Kravitz's most decisive commercial victory thus far was his next effort, Are You Gonna Go My Way?, with its riveting title track and ethereal pop centerpiece, "Believe."
More subdued circumstances, however, marked the recording of Circus: Disillusioned by the music industry and devastated by the illness and death of his mother, Kravitz attempted to purge his sorrow and anger with a heavy dose of religion. Circus's first single, "Rock and Roll Is Dead," seemed an apt metaphor for his own inner turmoil, which he seems to have come to terms with on 5. The album features solid rockers ("Live," "Fly Away"), hard-core funk ("Straight Cold Player", "Supersoulfighter"), slinky soul ("If You Can't Say No") and futuristic larks ("Can We Find a Reason" and "Black Velveteen"). Meanwhile, "Little Girl's Eyes" is Kravitz's latest ode to his daughter Zoe, and "Thinking of You" is a surprisingly upbeat tribute to his mom.
"I had a very strong, loving and warm relationship with her, and this song is my way of honoring her spirit," he says." A lot of people say to me, 'Well, that song isn't sad,' and that's what they expect it to be. But it's very much a celebration of her life, which was [not sad] at all."
Kravitz also came to terms with something less human on 5. A longtime champion of vintage instruments, tube equipment and analog-only recording, he actually cozied up to technology this time around, using samplers and recording everything directly to a computer hard drive.
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"I said that I would never do digital things. So, of course, that's exactly why I did it -- to see if I could," Kravitz laughs. "And it was cool. It opened up a lot of things for me."
But 5 is hardly an clunky exercise in sterility.
"I was thinking about the live situation, and I wanted people to dance. So I played a lot of groove-oriented stuff," he says of his latest material, adding that anyone who has seen him live knows what to expect.
"We funk out on any song we play."
Lenny Kravitz performs Sunday, September 27, at Aerial Theater at Bayou Place, 520 Texas. Sean Lennon and Ozomatli open. Showtime is 8 p.m. Tickets are $29.50 and $35. For info, call 629-3700.