Music Rags: That old ChesnuTT is new again

Cody ChesnuTT is a musical renaissance man. He embodies everything an artist should be: daring, brave, intelligent and willing to do it all on his own terms. Listening to his music is like getting a lecture from a black music historian, a man who has absorbed all the subtleties of black music created since 1950. Though it consists of only two records released a decade apart (and an EP), ChesnuTT’s catalogue is already rich with colour and emotion. For those of you unfamiliar with the man’s work, I offer you this: a look into the two records that form the long beginning of the career of one of the most important soulmen working today.

The Headphone Masterpiece (2002)

Bold. Audacious. Conspicuous. All of these words could be used to describe ChesnuTT’s debut record, The Headphone Masterpiece. To release your first album as a double-record filled with songs ranging from 38 seconds to over five minutes — with seemingly no cohesive bind to pull it all together — is an act of bravery, and one that ChesnuTT pulls off with the efficient precision of a kung-fu master.

This album is a beautiful, lo-fi mess. The production is a muddied work of love, with ChesnuTT playing most of the instruments himself on what sounds like a four-track recorder. Drum machines come in and out; simple, piercing piano breaks appear from nowhere; and ChesnuTT sings with joyous disregard for musical norms, never seeming to care if he’s in the same key as his music.

Sitting near the crest of the neo-soul movement and the late-’90s fascination with muddy, lo-fi sound, The Headphone Masterpiece is awash in ’50s Motown groove, ’70s funk and ’90s hip-hop bravado. Schizophrenically jumping between jagged, disjointed rhythms and supple grooves, the album offers little reprieve from ChesnuTT’s endless barrage of musical ideas and detours.

“I got a dick full of blood and a heart full of love to lean on,” ChesnuTT sings while gently pondering masculinity in “My Women, My Guitars” — and in that line is a mission statement for the entire album: a portrait of a man in transition, stuck between adolescence and manhood, struggling to find an identity.

The honesty that undercuts the satirical misogyny of songs like “The Seed” (later retooled as “The Seed 2.0” with the Roots) and the fantastic “Bitch, I’m Broke” is startling. ChesnuTT is more than content to expose his own pain and confusion to the elements, baring it in all its bloody R&B glory.

Landing on a Hundred (2012)

A far bigger, slicker affair than The Headphone Masterpiece, Landing on a Hundred finds ChesnuTT  mining the sounds of classic R&B and soul music to create a record overflowing with importance and immediacy.

Forgoing the skeletal sound of his first album, ChesnuTT attacks these songs with the backing of a full band, even employing string sections on some cuts. This fuller sound gives respect and gravitas to the words ChesnuTT croons. He is clearly driven by a far more stable life than he once enjoyed as he sings of the strength family brings (“’Til I Met Thee”), the healing power of God and religion (“Everybody’s Brother”) and the undefinable nature of true, romantic love (“Love is More Than a Wedding Day”).

Where much of The Headphone Masterpiece’s social commentary was built on tongue-in-cheek turns of phrase or the winking use of ridiculous hip-hop machismo, ChesnuTT is now much more direct in his attacks. On “Chips Down (In No Landfill),” ChesnuTT oozes the words “Imprisoned men and women can be reformed/If they are around human beings that don’t treat/Them like a disposable part of the dream” with a passion and suppleness that implies empathy for the dispossessed of a modern culture, one that has turned its back on the weakest among us.

On an album filled with Herculean emotion, the most arresting moments come when ChesnuTT turns his eye to Africa. On the closing track, “Scroll Call,” ChesnuTT calls out to the African diaspora, triumphantly saying, “Come let us build a bridge out of the greatness we have in common.”

It may have been 10 years in the making, but Landing on a Hundred was worth the wait and is no doubt on the path to becoming a landmark album in the pantheon of great soul music.

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