The most frequently used word to describe Cautious Clay’s (Joshua Karpeh’s) music is “sophisticated”. Critics have noted the felicity with which he combines jazz-inflected instrumentals and a refined R&B vocal style with urbane production techniques to create something self-consciously chic and stylish. He always sounds cool, as in hip, even when he says he’s unsure about how to act, think, or feel. The Brooklyn via Cleveland artist sounds at home in the complex, city streets of cultured society.
As the album’s title (Deadpan Love) suggests, Clay puts on a blank expression. Even when singing about romance, his emotions are unclear. He hides behind a mask so the listener can never be sure of where Clay stands. A large part of Clay’s charm is his sense of humor. He’s able to make fun of his pretensions, from name-dropping “Gucci, Prada, Versace” on one song and then the desire for cheap tacos and red punch the next. Clay will throw out a snappy line one minute (“I’m that n***a that everybody wants for breakfast”) and then confess his confusion the next (“I think I’m dying in the subtlety / Lying ’bout the worst of me”).
He’s a shapeshifter whose music always seems to be one step from being out of control before Clay pulls back and smiles as if to say, just kidding. The impact is somewhat disorienting, but that’s the point. He’s just taking the listener for a ride. He’s not headed anywhere in particular.
That doesn’t mean Clay’s not serious. Halfway through the record, he launches into a quick 24-second spiel, “Why Is Your Clay So Cautious?” that presents an abbreviated story of the fighter Cassius Clay’s struggle to define himself. The moral of the tale has to do with control, as in who has it. As the boxer found out, you could be the heavyweight champion of the world and still not have the power to influence the opinion of others. The musician Clay may be cautious, he explains elsewhere, but he has good reason to maintain such an attitude. Being insecure is a sign of intelligence.
When Clay gives in to his passions, such as on “Wildfire”, the musical accompaniment is much more laid back than the lyrics. That implies that the singer has strong feelings that he’s unwilling to act on it. He’ll sing words of passion like “Your eyes are like weapons / Your lips could teach lessons” in a quiet voice that seems far from overwhelmed. He’s not ready for the lovemaking as much as he might yearn to be seduced. The song ends with the singer being more concerned about the other person than his own feelings.
The music itself is always infectious. The melodies share a slithering under-tempo that makes everything from lyrics about eggs with toast on the side to the color of one’s clothes seem fraught with deep meaning. The subliminal message has an erotic aura. Just like the right outfit can make one look sexy without necessarily being revealing, Clay dresses up his songs so that they bring out his best qualities. He’s a sophisticated man about town in 21st century America.