Jon Batiste has long been a household name, thanks in large part to his star-making turn as the affably hip bandleader on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. But last year’s surprise Grammy win for his 2021 album We Are catapulted him to a new level of fame and cultural relevance. That record’s hopeful message of community and shared humanity—set to a joyous blend of soul, jazz, funk, R&B, and hip-hop—offered an antidote to the emotional burnout of grappling with America’s festering socio-political fissures. Drawing from the rich cultural lineage of Black music as well as personal history—not only does Batiste come from New Orleans musical royalty, his grandfather was a union organizer—We Are’s fist-pumping positivity sounded vital and essential, even at its corniest.

Now Batiste wants to take his brand of musical activism international. For his sprawling new album, World Music Radio, he enlists a globe-spanning crew of collaborators for an ambitious experiment in planetary genre-blending. Their mission? To create pop music that so effortlessly transcends national, cultural, and genre barriers that it is, as the press release puts it, “meant for everyone.” If that sounds like the sort of money-printing holy grail modern music executives dream of, well, that’s because it sort of is. But for Batiste, it’s more about tapping into music’s power to find common ground between disparate—often divided—communities. If we can get kids in, say, Dhaka to jam to Latin trap and Catalonian folk, he seems to think, then maybe it will remind us that we are all, in the end, human.

So Batiste puts his extensive compositional chops—and his thick Rolodex—to work, blending his amorphous jazz-soul with timbres and rhythms from all across the world. Soaring gospel choirs sit comfortably alongside Latin drums; improvisational jazz and French spoken word share space with Michael Jackson-esque pop-funk; K-pop idols and Colombian pop stars trade bars over reggaeton beats. Batiste ties this musical mish-mash together with a familiar conceptual conceit: packaging the album’s 12 tracks as an all-night radio show, hosted and curated by alter ego Billy Bob Bo Bob, an interstellar DJ with a penchant for hokey aphorisms (“Be who you are… because everyone else is taken”).

When it works, Batiste’s cultural cross-pollination can be electrifying—as when the crescendoing organ of “Worship” segues seamlessly into propulsive Latin-tinged electro-funk. But far too often, especially when he strays away from sounds that have already made inroads at U.S. Top 40 (Latin trap, Afropop), it comes across as window dressing, as if the unfamiliarity of these sounds and textures can make up for the inherent blandness of the songwriting. All the undeniable virtuosity of Batiste—and the pop polish delivered by a production team that has worked with stars like Drake and Doja Cat—cannot distract from the record’s fatal conceptual flaw: the contradiction between its celebration of cultural difference and its overarching goal of proving that, at least on a musical level, we are all the same.

It’s an intuitive idea, and plenty of studies seem to offer support for the idea of music as a “universal language.” There are examples on a broader, socio-cultural level—say, a person’s ability to tell a piece of music apart from random sound, or gauge mood and tone (the link between minor chords and sadness, for example). But what lures us into creating complex webs of meanings and connections with a particular song or melody depends as much on who we are as it does on the music itself. It is our unique, diverse, fragmented selves—a lifetime’s collection of experiences, cultural inheritances, and learned responses. Music all over the world may have its shared characteristics—its universalities—but seeking a universal listener means losing other, distinguishing characteristics in turn.

In his attempt to create music that appeals to everyone, Batiste strips the disparate sounds and styles he borrows of the cultural contexts and specificities that make them so powerful. What’s left is just a layer of aestheticised sound, grafted onto a musical skeleton of unambiguously American pop lineage. In an interview with The New York Times, Batiste said that he aims to “expand the diameter of popular music.” But World Music Radio achieves the opposite, collapsing the wide-ranging possibilities of global music into the form of the American pop song. Batiste sands away all the rough edges that make encounters with truly “foreign” music so thrilling: alien melodic progressions that violate our learned expectations, the exhilarating wrong-ness of an unfamiliar rhythm, the sudden expansion of our imagination of cultural possibility.

You’ll find none of that on World Music Radio. Batiste’s idea of universal music is so averse to cultural specificity—except the Afro-American traditions he’s rooted in—that listening to it can feel like a sterile game of spot-the-style. This aversion extends to the lyrics too, though that might be a generous description for Batiste’s banal affirmations of kumbaya solidarity. “Speak to me nicely,” he pleads on tropical-pop-by-numbers cut “Raindance,” while the English-Spanish-Korean reggae-pop of “Be Who You Are”—featuring guest verses from JID, Camilo, and NewJeans—never escapes the drag of its painfully sincere titular exhortation. The nadir of this motivational-poster lyricism is hydro-homies anthem “Drink Water”—featuring Jon Bellion and Fireboy DML—with its insistent reminders to, you guessed it, drink water. When Batiste does get a little more specific—reminding us that he loves Black folks, white folks, Asians, Africans, Republicans, and Democrats on “Be Who You Are”—he betrays a perspective that, despite the grand one-world rhetoric, remains solidly American.

Unsurprisingly, it’s only when Batiste turns inward, toward the personal and the biographical, that World Music Radio finds solid ground. Piano ballad “Butterfly”—written for his wife Suleika Jaouad, who is recovering from a second battle with cancer—may be primo schmaltz, but it is elevated by the heart Batiste puts into it. Arena-sized love-rocker “Wherever You Are” similarly soars on the incandescent passion of his full-throated voice. There are too few displays of such engaged, emotional songwriting to make up for the album’s surfeit of awkwardly assembled clunkers: the high-budget Muzak of “Clair de Lune” (featuring, of all people, Kenny G), the inadvertently hilarious country-gospel of “Master Power,” the synth-cheese overload of the sickly sweet “Calling Your Name.”

On interlude “Goodbye, Billy Bob”—the album’s closing statement of sorts—Batiste’s galaxy-trotting griot says, “Love you even if I don’t know you.” Which is a lovely sentiment, really. But to love someone is to want to know them, to try and understand what makes them tick. To love a piece of music is to try to know the person who made it and the cultural, personal, and emotional contexts within which it was made, however imperfect and subjective that knowledge may be. It is that attempt at knowing—finding connections and commonalities with the part of themselves that an artist puts into their work—that really gives music its power to remind us of our shared humanity. Barring a few notable exceptions, World Music Radio is so beholden to its premise—so enfeebled by Batiste’s insistence on universality—that it offers up few opportunities to get to know Batiste himself: his stories, his struggles, his euphoric victories and devastating losses. That absence leaves the record feeling hollow, like a pretty house where no one lives.

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Jon Batiste: World Music Radio