Jamil Rashad, who performs under the name Boulevards, has released Electric Cowboy: Born In Carolina Mud. With elements of soul, country, jazz, hip-hop, and indie rock running through it, the album includes collaborations with Adrian Quesada (Black Pumas), Nikki Lane, Macie Stewart (OHMME), and Blake Rhein (Durand Jones & the Indications).
"I was born in the North Carolina mud,” says Jamil Rashad, better known as Boulevards, one of the most idiosyncratic artists making music in the Tarheel State. “That’s where I have my roots. I’ve lived in Los Angeles and New York, but I keep coming back here. This is home. This is where I’ve learned the most.”
His fourth album, Electric Cowboy: Born In Carolina Mud, is caked in the soil where he grew up, mired in the muck of this place - not stuck but freed. Rashad continued, “A lot of artists who are coming from smaller cities like Raleigh get overlooked, so a lot of us are underdogs. North Carolina doesn’t get nearly the credit it deserves, but there are all these amazing people doing it a very particular way that is very inspiring. It’s always been at the center of so many different scenes—soul, country, jazz, hip-hop, indie rock. I wanted some of that dirt on this record. I’m leaving my footprint in that mud.”
All of those styles and genres inform Electric Cowboy, but the dominant sound - the dominant mindset - is funk: gritty, warm, weird, charismatic. The music unfolds kaleidoscopically, giving Rashad the space to face up to his own demons while showcasing the energy and charisma that have made him a mainstay in the North Carolina music scene. It’s a new sound for him, but not an unexpected one; he’s been building toward this album for several years, showing new facets of himself with each new record. While drawing from different eras of pop history, he never sounds retro and never loses himself among the references.
“On Electric Cowboy I wanted to make some modern funk that the kids would enjoy, but still have some soul elements and some punk elements,” he says, listing James Brown, Shuggie Otis, and Baby Huey as well as Bad Brains, Gang of Four, Television, and The Cramps among his heroes. “That’s what I’ve always aimed to do since the beginning, since writing my first song, but I had to make all those other records and go through all that stuff to get to this point. A lot of artists come out hitting with that first record, but for me, I had to take those risks and take those chances to get to where I am now.”
Boulevards is a musical act, but it’s also a state of mind, an approach to making music that prizes freedom, flexibility, and friendly collaboration. Rashad once again composed and recorded with Blake Rhein, guitarist for Durand Jones & the Indications, after they had worked so well together on 2020’s Brother! EP. They corralled an all-star team that included Adrian Quesada from the Grammy-nominated neo-soul act Black Pumas and Colin Croom from the Chicago indie-rock outfit Twin Peaks. Sketches and ideas were traded back and forth, gradually forming songs that bent into unexpected shapes.
After he traveled up to Chicago to record his vocals at Treehouse Records studio and Palisades Studio, Rashad set about caking these songs in more mud, adding flourishes and embellishments to make them funkier. Chief among those elements was backing vocals, courtesy of Ashley Wilcoxson and Leisa Hans. They’re two of the best-regarded and busiest vocalists in Nashville, working frequently with Dan Auerbach at Easy Eye Sound. (They’re featured on recent albums by Tony Joe White and Yola.)
The other outstanding voice is a little more unexpected, but demonstrates just how open the Boulevards mindset is. With its Fantastic Planet fanfare and slow-motion groove, “Better Off Dead” is an addiction saga featuring vocals by Rashad’s New West labelmate Nikki Lane. It’s an affecting duet, each bringing both a charisma and a world-weariness to their performances.