Solange and Cody ChesnuTT are both independent soul artists — the kind reliant even on crowdfunding the release of a new album — but they each hover a single degree of separation from the mainstream. Solange, of course, as the younger sister of “one of the biggest pop stars OF ALL TIME,” Beyonce, and ChesnuTT as the guitarist and songwriter behind The Roots’ hit single, “The Seed 2.0.” After a lengthy wait (and in ChesnuTT’s case, we’re talking an ‘assumed you retired or possibly died’-length wait), their respective new albums show the talented pair headed down divergent musical paths.
The younger Knowles has covered some interesting ground in arriving at her new EP, True – her career sputtered into gear with a downright hilarious line-up of undoubtedly family-sponsored gigs: the theme song for The Proud Family, a role as Lil’ Bow Wow’s date in a music video, and a generic album flop with some help from Jermaine Dupri. A resulting multi-year hiatus gave way to 2008′s Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams, a soulfully self-assured album that parlayed a strong 60s/70s influence into a recognizable but hugely enjoyable sound.
If that album proved her capable of establishing a musical identity apart from her sister, True finds Solange flexing that creative muscle amid an entirely new sonic landscape. With ample help from producer Blood Orange, she emotes against a plush electronic palette that props each song up but rarely provides for any non-vocal flourishes.
Though I miss the panache of her old backing band, it’s reflective in some ways of Solange’s continuing path towards musical self-discovery that the emphasis is more squarely on her than ever. This EP suggests new avenues for self-expression, but it too vaguely sketched to be more than a suggestion.
Other than an unorthodox song title (“Some Things Never Seem to Fucking Work”) and a Jimmy John’s namedrop, Solange keeps things lyrically conventional. She’s cultivated a distinctively “out there” image through her exuberant sense of style, but the restraint shown on True might even seem, to an unfamiliar listener, downright normal. My hope is that on her next release she’ll take a page from collaborator Kevin Barnes (of Montreal), and blend the stranger elements of her persona with something sonically venturesome.
Just as Solange breaks free from her classic influences, Cody ChesnuTT’s new album, Landing On A Hundred finds him embracing the soul tradition more than ever. ChesnuTT broke onto the scene (a phrase that entails far less glamor than it might imply) with his not-so-humbly-titled lo-fi behemoth of a record, The Headphone Masterpiece, in 2002.
Bravado for days, the bushy-bearded crooner opined in an unorthodoxly up-front way about all sorts of things, but most of the time just his dick. Ten years later, and now in his forties, ChesnuTT’s new musical persona can be summed up by a lyric from Hundred:
“I used to smoke crack back in the day/ Now I’m teaching kids in Sunday school.”
It’s disappointing to find his distinctive, often-sexual idiosyncrasies toned way down, but there’s a justifiable tradeoff, one that for this listener called back to a sly trick that Death Cab for Cutie pulled on their 2000 album, We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes. The opening track to that album begins with the band’s (to that point) typical lo-fi production. But as the second verse arrives with the strike of a cymbal, the audio quality abruptly deepens — the sound fleshed out in a way that would signal a new era in the band’s career.
It’s a difficult moment to put into words, but is pretty much the exact way I felt upon starting up Landing On A Hundred – while ChesnuTT’s usual accompaniment on his debut was limited to guitar and an early-Mountain-Goats-level of tape hiss, the songs here are immediately big and embodied by a whole array of band members. But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, he did have a decade to scrape together a studio budget.
The arrangements fit squarely in the precedent set by many soul masters of yesteryear, and that connection is strengthened by ChesnuTT’s newly displayed social-consciousness. To say someone has gotten “more mature,” though usually meant as a compliment, can often imply a diffusion of what leant the artist their original power (I’m “not afraid” to level such a claim against contemporary Eminem). Even if a little something seems missing, it can only be a compliment to be mentioned in the same breath as a legend like Curtis Mayfield, who springs to mind as a good reference point.
In a promotional video for the new album, ChesnuTT reveals the title’s meaning, saying “landing on a hundred means landing on something truthful.” As both Solange and ChesnuTT venture into new stages of their careers, its clear that both plan to keep a premium on being true to their impulses. Provided they (at the least, with some help from their celebrity contacts) can find a way to keep getting their music out there, it should continue to surprise and delight. The only question, to ape a ChesnuTT song title, is “what kind of cool will they think of next?”