In Search of Lenny White’s Freedom on “Sweet Dreamer”

Brandon Johnson
The Riff
Published in
4 min readDec 27, 2021


Lenny White’s Big City

Like so many other naive souls in 2019, I made a new year’s resolution. Usually, I don’t bother with the tradition, instead ascribing to a “live every day like it’s your last” philosophy.

But 2020 was different.

For me, 2019 was a year of relative stability. After a stretch of unemployment the year prior, I had finally walked into a job, and more importantly, field, I was passionate about. The job in question, a higher education communications position, had already been a harbinger of good fortune. What started as a part-time role became a full-time gig, providing me with much-coveted health benefits and guaranteed bi-weekly pay. I could finally go back to the dentist. I stopped wincing every time I took my car into the shop.

After living a slice of the good life for 2019, one that was a shade more financially stable (curse those school bills), I was determined to step outside of myself. Enjoyable as my job was, I found myself working when I wasn’t working.

Morning meetings turned into late-night sports photoshoots or event coverage. The days of comp time I’d accrue from working late would spill into subsequent days working late. And while the cycle felt physically sustainable, it did a number on other areas of my life which suffered from little contact from people not employed at the school.

So, 2020 was my year. I didn’t have a clear idea of what I’d do, but the general feeling was to “get out there.” Maybe I’d see a show on a weeknight or join one of those Meetup groups I constantly scroll past. I wanted to feel uncomfortable because my work life was stagnant.

2020 didn’t work out as planned, and 2021 was a poorly received reboot of its predecessor. I made gains where I could, like indulging my creative hobbies, but I spent the better part of the last two years feeling marred by unmet potential.

Now in December, 2022 is starting to feel manageable. The highs of potentially being pandemic-free have been replaced by cautious optimism — the omicron variant is worrisome, but I’ve done everything in my power to lessen the potential impacts. Where years past have been ushered in by joyous and triumphant tunes — think Anderson. Paak’s Malibu in 2016 or Future’s The Wizard in 2019 — I’m defining 2022 with a different perspective, one captured best by Lenny White’s “Sweet Dreamer.”

At this point, White’s “Sweet Dreamer” might be better known as the groundwork for Madib and Freddie Gibbs’ “Robes,’’ a downtempo ode to the grind with guest spots from Odd Future alumni Domo Genesis and Earl Sweatshirt. White’s track also made passes through the lofi hip-hop ranks, with Jinsang and Flamingosis each flipping the original.

On its own, however, the track is a standout from White’s second studio album, Big City. White’s penchant for rambunctious drumlines give credence to the album’s name. As one of the forefathers of jazz fusion, and from the vantage point of a drummer rather than a guitarist or piano man, White guides Big City’s improvisational style that harkens back to his appearances on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. “Ritmo Loco” shows White at his best on the album. At the same time, “Rapid Transit” showcases his ability to accompany a stellar performance by Herbie Hancock and his electric piano (White also played synth on this track).

“Sweet Dreamer” by contrast tilts away from Big City’s funkier inspiration in favor of a soulful ballad swelling around Linda Tillery’s vocals. The first verse’s melancholic look at life as an unsatisfied hunt for freedom is quickly contrasted by the second and third’s reminder of childhood optimism. “While they are young, they often see what we can’t see/ wearing a smile” Tillery sings robustly. Meanwhile, Hancock’s piano flourishes help signal a brighter future than can even be dreamt.

I’m looking for the freedom promised in “Sweet Dreamer.” The last two years have been nothing short of mentally taxing, with red vs. blue tensions exacerbating what should be simple fixes for a litany of problems.

It’s been easy to tell myself that the last two years were my status quo. Every gain was met by an equal, or greater setback.

“Sweet Dreamer” is a reminder that perception is everything. While the foreseeable future might be rough, everything that happens between then and now doesn’t have to be.



Brandon Johnson
The Riff

Forever hunting for my new favorite music sample. 🌴🦩