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The first time I caught Chocolate Genius live, he blew onstage with a dreadlocked ensemble and proceeded to wring maximum funk out of a banjo. But the real hook came in the middle of the set, when he laid down a meandering guitar line and floated “My Mom” over it. The song, a chronicle of his mother’s decline into the hazy maze of Alzheimer’s, nearly broke down everyone in the joint. In a smoke-tinged baritone, he sang, “It’s been five years and some change/And this world is getting so strange/But this house smells just the same/And my mom, she don’t remember my name.” Amid the mass-market music clones, Marc Anthony Thompsonknown to the assembled congregants as Chocolate Geniusis, like, a genuine article. And if musical originality isn’t enough, you’ve gotta love a guy with enough self-reverent wit to call himself Chocolate Geniusand enough idiosyncratic style to make you believe that the moniker might just be accurate.
Geniuseschocolate and otherwisealways run the risk of being too far ahead of the crowd conceptually. In the case of our boy Choc, there are a couple of a times on the new Godmusic when I get the impression that he and the crowd might not even be in the same zip code. Godmusic, which follows on the heels of 1998’s Black Music, is conceptual like a mother. This is straight-up ambient soul, an ethereal, cross-pollinated style just this side of musical surrealism: Al Green genetically spliced with Portisheador some secret Marvin Gaye album with production work by Tricky. Factor in a preoccupation with divinity and you have a CD on which the tracks are more meditations than songs.
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Keep in mind, however, that Godmusic isn’t as much designed to inspire you out of your seat as to get you to sink a little deeper into it. Case in point: “For One More Look At You,” a pensive ballad led by a descending array of piano notes and a drifting bass line. Spiced by violin flourishes, the cut is a sublime offering, with Genius’ baritone nearly growling, “I’d take it in/If I had the room…I’d let it go/If I could just find/Something to hold on to.” Truth be told, though, this release is only partly devotional. The other percentage sounds as if Genius is trying to hip God to what’s been going down on the third planet and find out what exactly he plans to do about it. On “Planet Rock,” he sings of a woman at the nadir of crack addiction: “I can’t judge/But I want to/Heaven knows/What she’s been through/Heaven knows/But it don’t care.”
Taken in the aggregate, Godmusic is a deftly constructed vibe project, the sound of life slowed down to 33 rpm. Check the indigo-shaded “The Eyes of the Lord” or the lyrically indignant “Bossman Piss (In My Lemonade)” and you’ll dig my point. On the former, Genius comes off as equal parts apostate and devotee: “If I lose myself/He knows just where to find me/There’s a knock upon my door/There’s no peace/In the name of the Lord.” His ambivalence drifts over an elemental track that’s as empty as a poor man’s refrigerator, highlighted by a shy guitar riff and nearly subliminal piano. The lamenting “Bossman Piss” starts out in the same mellowed-out zone and then builds into an insistent, if abstract, story of a life in decline. And the sentiment “Days go by/And nights get colder…Time don’t fly/You just get older” suggests a singer whose love for God is slugging it out with his marrow-deep cynicism.
“Infidel Blues,” a moody arrangement featuring barbershop-quartet-style vocals, momentarily threatens to topple the sonic architecture that Genius is constructing here. The track’s elongated phrasings and wandering piano lines are as mismatched as the word “Bush” is to “economy.” And true to his live show, the brother keeps just enough banjo licks thrown into the mix to make you wonder if he’s got some frustrated C&W ambitions. Either that or he’s trying to point out that God’s got some rustic edges.
And on the subject of the cosmic author, it don’t take a prophet to recognize that the good Lord ain’t doing too well in pop music these days. God is either a judicious referee implored to deliver the righteously thugged-out from the hands of their enemies (see P. Diddy) or an Old Testament don out to settle the karmic score (see Lauryn Hill). Godmusic, by contrast, exists in a blessed space between charlatanism and zealotry. This boy Genius truly contains multitudes.
On the opposite side of the score card is 8701, the most recent offering by Usher. Whereas Choc’s concerns are ecclesiastic and weighty, Usher (née Usher Raymond) comes to the table primarily concerned with gettin’ a groove onin both the musical and coital senses of the term. Precisely calibrated for maximum airplay, 8701 is steeped in the tradition of pop as momentary pleasure, not heart-rending aesthetic. The irony is that in the world of disposable music, Usher is one of the royal few who have a shot at being played a year or five down the road. Possessed of a voice that is more mature than his 22 years, Usher comes off as more artist than productor at least equal parts of each, which, given his multiplatinum status, is saying a whole lot.
More than once on 8701, you catch snatches of sound that conjure both Gaye’s “You Sure Love to Ball” and Prince’s “Adore.” And, for his part, Usher is charting emotional terrain somewhere between Gaye’s horizontal hedonism and Prince’s love jones that goes all the way down to the chromosomes. With contributions from P. Diddy and Jermaine Dupri, 8701 comes off as slightly ghetto-faban obvious reckoning with Usher’s status as a crooner mannered enough to be the boy next dooralbeit one with street cred. Call it neo-playa urban-love music. If nothing else, the disc makes it clear that Usher the juvenile balladeer done grown up and has got some adult things in mind. This cat actually delivers lines such as “Now that I got U all soakin’ wet/I bet U know what’s comin’ next.”
“U Remind Me,” an up-tempo tale of love déjà vu, is a sleekly funked recasting of Mary J. Blige’s “You Remind Me.” This isn’t exactly a cover; it’s more like an extended paraphrase. Artistic echoes notwithstanding, the cut gets over on its undergirding arrangement of keys, bass, and flute pulses. And the succeeding “I Don’t Know” stays afloat despite the arrhythmic vocal stylings of P. Diddy. Backed by a thick, bleating keyboard loop, the former Puff Daddy enters a lyrical not-guilty plea, intoning, “I get money, I ain’t gotta do a crime/Shit, I hit dimes, what I need wit’ a nine?” (Ain’t that the line Johnnie Cochran sold to that New York jury a few months back?) Legal issues notwithstanding, Usher’s vocal adroitness is more than adequate recompense for Diddy’s, uh, rapping.
Not to be outplaya-ed, Dupri offers some narration three tracks later on “If I Want To,” a layered choral number with an infinitely noddable bass line. In a moment of classic romantic trash talking, Usher sings, “If I wanted I could take U from ya man…I could have you eatin’ out the palm of my hand.” On “I Can’t Let U Go,” he’s issuing vocals over another song covered with Dupri’s fingerprints, all staccato keys, colorful commentary, and lover-man posturing. Redemption comes, ironically enough, on a track titled “Good Ol’ Ghetto,” which features a damn near irresistible down-tempo combination of sparse bass and minimalized guitar riffing. Check Usher as a man doing battle with sexual nostalgia, singing, “And I got a girl now and I don’t get down like this/But I must admit I’m tempted and startin’ to reminisce.” Listen to his slick phrasings and you know from the get-go that it’s a lost cause.
Take the track in combination with “U Got It Bad,” a smoothed-out lament of love gone past its expiration date, and you might just draw the conclusion that maybe the L-word ain’t all it’s cracked up to beeven for a playa. Here the singer violates the fundamental playa creed, offering, “My money…my cars/U can have it all.” Set against a simple guitar-led track and momentary bass interludes, the song is a reminder that beneath his ghetto-glam sheen, Usher Raymond has some legit vocal talent. Which means that as ephemeral as 8701 is, it’s nonetheless infinitely digable. CP