Cody Chesnutt flirted with success briefly in 2002 when he was featured on the Roots’ single “The Seed (2.0)” from their Phrenology album. The song was actually an adaptation of one of Chesnutt’s own solo tracks, a cleaned-up, tighter version of his sloppy and occasionally out-of-tune original. Chesnutt opened for the Roots on their tour supporting that album and gained a small amount of buzz as a result.
2002 also saw the release of Chesnutt’s debut album, the ambitious, eccentric, hilariously-titled double-disc The Headphone Masterpiece. The first time I heard it, I suppose I was expecting songs like the Roots’ “The Seed (2.0),” and I was quite surprised to be greeted with a forty-second tape-hissy keyboard and vocal track followed by a seemingly endless, though actually less than four minutes, naughty/sexy spoken word piece by terrible guest poet Sonja Marie. The record was already confusing and frustrating me, and then he couldn’t even hit his own high notes in the original “The Seed!” He’d play a great lo-fi acoustic track like “Enough of Nothing” for less than a minute and then follow it with a looped beat for another 46 seconds with him on top saying, and I quote, “Test test test test ahhhhhhhhh.” By the time I got to the end of the tremendous nearly-100-minute album (this guy’s got some serious huevos rancheros putting out a debut that long and bloated) I was left thinking, “What a weird album.” Then I realized –I love weird albums!
It’s like the diary of a nutty, earnest, gifted, horny, and slightly delusional recluse put to music by the love child of Stevie Wonder and Daniel Johnston. Chesnutt has no reservations or continuity lyrically, going from songs about childhood best friends to songs about sex while high, then continuing to beg for forgiveness for cheating on his woman and singing a 13-second ode to his “big black penis.” He’s all over the map musically as well, from acoustic guitar and vocal ballads, hip-hop tracks (with occasionally dreadful freestyle rapping), retro soul, and straight-ahead garage rock, all recorded with a lo-fi feel and usually with a drum machine. His aesthetic is unique, and it’d be hard to find an artist that sounded like one of these tracks, much less an artist who can pull them all off like Chesnutt does. And his voice, despite its limits and occasional blemishes, is remarkably expressive and smooth. The pimp anthem “Serve This Royalty” has a bridge melody that’ll break your heart and the introspective “5 on a Joyride” hits me right in the middle of my soul.
After his short stint in the spotlight and this wonderful album, Chesnutt has all but disappeared, apart from a painfully-brief appearance in the high-spirited documentary/concert film Dave Chappelle’s Block Party and a recent inclusion on the Biblical concept compilation Plague Songs. Chesnutt contributed “Boils,” a rollicking reggae track full of horns, groove, bombast, and notably improved production values.
Chesnutt’s MySpace page hints at a new collection of songs called The Live Release, “a unique experiment in music, an exercise of the living word.” I’m not totally sure what that means, but I’m excited to hear it. He releases what he wants when he wants, and whenever he decides to drop another album on the unsuspecting public, make sure to take notice.
-Posted by Andrew