Monday, 14 January 2013

Black to the Future

On Saturday morning I used the generous yuletide iTunes gift certificates from my brother-in-law (check out his art) to facilitate my New Year's resolution to keep abreast of current music.  So in additional to the not-so-current anthologies that I bought - Brunswick Top 40 R&B Singles 1966-1975 and Stax 50 - 50th Anniversary Celebration - I purchased Cody ChesnuTT's first "real" album, Landing On A Hundred.  I say "real" album because he's come a long way since his 2002 release The Headphone Masterpiece, which collected 36 poorly-recorded, out-of-tune, experimental mini tracks (as well as the original cut to The Roots' "Seed 2.0").  I also say "real" because this album is the real deal.

Between 2002 and now ChesnuTT released some singles, an EP, and patched things up with his estranged wife, but obviously spent most of his time doing serious homework.  If you didn't know better, you'd swear Landing on A Hundred was part of the Curtom back catalogue.  The influences behind his redemptive gospel lyrics are obvious: Marvin Gaye, Bobby Womack, Curtis Mayfield, Willie Hutch, Leroy Hutson and Donny Hathaway.  But that's no slight; you could do worse for inspiration.  The lush string and brass arrangements hail from across 110th Street, while the rhythms honour african roots, and the mastering rinses out in a Jamaican rub-a-dub style.  ChesnuTT is repped by One Little Indian in the UK and Vibration Vineyard stateside but his album was funded through a Kickstart campaign.  Let that be lesson in why you should support your artists and buy their music.  Also, you should go see him at Wrongbar on February 10th, 2013.  Tickets are available at Rotate This

I also took this musical/financial opportunity to catch up on some albums I foolishly passed over, notably Aloe Blacc's Good Things (2010) and Raphael Saadiq's Stone Rollin' (2011).  Both of which adeptly throw it back to sixties southern rhythm and blues and the chart toppers of Hitsville USA.

We're in a good place for retro soul right now.  It's been too long since the producers of golden-era hip hop put the MPCs to their daddies' dusty records or since D'Angelo showed us the thug with a heart of brown sugar.  (By the way, Voodoo was just re-issued on 180 gram vinyl).

With my iPod loaded, I set out for the day and walked to the BMV on Bloor Street West.  And not three hours after I had acquired these exceptional rhythm and blues albums did I serendipitously discover Nelson George's critically acclaimed book The Death of Rhythm and Blues.  Equal parts music history and cultural criticism, George argues that rhythm and blues - which he uses synonymously for black popular music, be it rock, funk, disco, rap - has always been more than just music.  Black music is black culture, community, politics and economy.  Rhythm and blues broke colour barriers,  but he laments that desegregation also led to an atrophy in African American culture, as the upwardly-mobile aspirations of "white" culture came to dominate and undermine black life.  Moreover, the white record executives, now in business with black artists, exorcized the music of its soul and sold the corpse down the river.  In the end, Phil Collins became equally as funky as Cameo.  As George summarizes, "There is something missing in black America, and symptoms of the illness are in its music." 

The book was published in 1988, the same year that (coincidently?) produced Public Enemy's Fear of A Black Planet.  As such, it doesn't account for the highly politicized movements in late 80s and early 90s hip hop.  But we've strayed far from Chuck D's sermons.  History has seemingly repeated itself.  Hip hop has left the pulpit for the auction block.  KRS-One is out, 2 Chainz is in.  Don't misunderstand me, I recognize that there is a multitude of artists producing true school hip hop, but one has to acknowledge wistfully that they don't get the commercial exposure they should, or the air time that Al Green and Aretha Franklin received in their heydays.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that I've only read the introduction to The Death of Rhythm and Blues, so I'll spare you the faux report on a book I haven't read.  But it piqued my curiosity re: the place of these aforementioned retro soul artists.

Is the return to classic soul an aesthetic choice, a political choice, or as Nelson George would argue, both, inextricably?  ChesnuTT admitted to The Telegraph that he equates contemporary RnB artists Usher and Chris Brown to "chewing paper…there's no flavour."  But that still doesn't really answer the question.  ChesnuTT's lyrics on the social ills he's faced, however, are as poignant now as when Stevie Wonder similarly rallied against systematic oppression 40 years ago.  The subject matter is still ever present, so why not the social commentary?  In this sense there appears to be a tangible socio-political agenda.  But why, still, have it assume a dated form?  Does it remind listeners that we haven't come as far as we think we have?  Or does ChesnuTT just love Tamla?  Or is it both?

Maybe we're just due for a soul revival.  Simon Reynolds manages to devote an exhaustive and exhausting 500 pages to the topic of nostalgic and cyclical musical rehashes in Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own PastBut not even he ultimately concludes what compels artists to resuscitate genres of yore.  And he's a better music journalist than most.  

So, perhaps I should resign myself to enjoying these albums and to being grateful that people still make music like they used to.

Photo credit: Cody ChesnuTT,


Cody ChesnuTT - That's Still Mama

Cody ChesnuTT - I've Been Life

Cody ChesnuTT - Scroll Call

ChesnuTT - Chips Down (In No Landfill)

Aloe Blacc - I Need A Dollar

Aloe Blacc - Life Is So Hard

Raphael Saadiq - Go To Hell

Raphael Saadiq - Good Man

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