Cody Chesnutt transforms from a dirty-minded, talented musical libertine-dilettante to a thoughtful soul man.
Cody ChesnuTT debuted in 2002 with The Headphone Masterpiece – a brash, aggressively carefree 36-track album, recorded by ChesnuTT entirely in his bedroom. ChesnuTT played sweet lullabies, soul, pop, futuristic funk rap, '60s California-sounding folk, and rock. Some songs were as short as 16 seconds, some a full four minutes, and the whole thing was held together by its tinny, lo-fi basement sound and a lot of jokes, most of them dirty – in addition to the famous hook about where ChesnuTT wants to put his seed, there was “I can make any woman mine / because I look good in leather / I can rock her body so good it blows her mind / because I know how to fuck her better.” And “I got a big fat dick and that’s all you’re gonna get / I gotta let you know / bitch, I’m broke.” As ChesnuTT noted in a recent interview, “Those songs were about how I was struggling to maintain my infidelity.”
“The Seed” was famously picked up by the Roots, who took the small, goofy basement track with potential and turned it into something huge, brutal, and funky, “The Seed 2.0”. (ChesnuTT can be seen strumming and singing the hook, dressed like a downtown New York cowboy, in the video). ChesnuTT had plenty of talent and tons of flash; he seemed poised to break through to a big audience. But then he dropped off the grid to rebuild his marriage and raise a family. He put out a short EP and a song for Obama, but was mostly absent until the release of his new album, Landing on a Hundred.
Listeners familiar with The Headphone Masterpiece and ChesnuTT’s “motherfucker, I’m cool with attitude and ego to spare” persona may be surprised by the result: an album recorded with a full-size band (including a horn section), a clear, brassy sound, a new instrumental focus on R&B grooves, a lyrical emphasis on social issues, and ChesnuTT doing a good job of becoming a smooth, emotive soul singer. Part of the new record was recorded in the studio in Memphis where Al Green recorded his incredible run of albums in the early '70s with Willie Mitchell and Hi Records, and the decision to record where Al Green made his best music is not just a gimmick to attract attention – Landing on a Hundred is a soul record. There are lush ballads, funkier numbers, and quick swinging tracks in the late ‘60s Motown style. The bass marches and struts, ChesnuTT’s guitar flickers choppily or punches the rhythm, a keyboard plays bluesy riffs, a string section makes repeated appearances. There’s an organ on some tracks, and backing vocalists echo ChesnuTT’s lead or drop in “ooh-oohs” and “ah-ahs.”
But the biggest forces on the album are ChesnuTT and the horns. ChesnuTT’s vocals are crystal clear. He emphasizes the soulful aspect of his delivery, playing off the backing vocalists, beginning “Til I Met Thee” with falsetto pyrotechnics, occasionally throwing out little “ohs” that evoke Marvin Gaye (like at the beginning of “I’ve Been Life”), sometimes slipping into a more spiritual tone reminiscent of Donny Hathaway’s 1970 album, Everything Is Everything. And the horns are everywhere, strong and unified, providing a thick counter to ChesnuTT’s vocal. On a song like “Under the Spell of the Handout,” the horns switch from bouncy big-band swing to slinky, sliding funk on a dime. They make the album sound big – startlingly big relative to ChesnuTT’s other work – rounding out the grooves, adding heft to this newly transformed soul singer.
While ChesnuTT has staked out a strong new sound, he has lost some of the irreverence that helped The Headphone Masterpiece acquire such a cult following. On that album ChesnuTT seemed willing to try it all, and completely uninterested in the usual considerations that go into making records – putting together something unified, writing a popular hit that doesn’t sound like it was recorded on a tape recorder in a closet under the stairs. These qualities were especially surprising and endearing considering how much talent the guy had; there are several songs on his debut that could have gotten the same treatment as “The Seed” and become hits.
ChesnuTT’s attitude on Landing on a Hundred is much more serious. This is evident even in the titles of songs: “Where Is All the Money Going”, “Under the Spell of the Handout”. He’s talking about important issues: losing his faith in God, the road to perdition, the working class’s relationship to democracy, the importance of long-term commitment in love, addressing problems rather than hiding behind an idea of cool, and the difficulties of drug addiction. ChesnuTT draws on a long and rich tradition of social commentary in soul music. His seriousness extends from his lyrics to his music – he is much less interested in experimentation here than he was on The Headphone Masterpiece. He’s doing 10 tracks of soul and funk in a traditional and recognizable way.
Landing on a Hundred shows ChesnuTT is capable of remarkable things, like completely transforming from a dirty-minded, talented musical libertine-dilettante to a thoughtful soul man. But in cleaning up his act and focusing his attention on socially relevant soul music, ChesnuTT left behind some of the experimentation and sense of playfulness that initially made him so beguiling. If he manages to combine his newfound commitment to powerful, cohesive soul music with some of his original spark and unpredictability, he could create a truly remarkable album.