An ice age ago—back in the fall of 2002—I was heartbroken, lost, and damn near destitute. Love had left me, my heat was off, and I was collecting 30-days-or-quit notices on my front door like fireflies in a jar. I covered all the windows of my Capitol Hill apartment and slugged five-dollar magnums of red wine. I felt totally directionless, bereft of hope, adrift in the lightless Seattle winter. I was at my homeboy's house, smoking and singing my pathetic blues, when he suggested we put on his just-purchased copy of Phrenology, the new album from the Roots. Seven tracks in, the stomping opening drums of the rocking "The Seed (2.0)" almost made me drop the blunt, but it was the hook and its singer that truly shook me out of my worst season ever:
I don't ask for much these days/And I don't bitch and whine if I don't get my way...
The listening party didn't resume for half an hour, as we kept running that song back. Apparently, the Roots had redone a cut by an Atlanta-by-way-of-California singer by the name of Cody ChesnuTT. I immediately set out to find out anything I could about him—a hunt that soon netted me his ambitiously titled two-disc debut album, The Headphone Masterpiece. This is such a horrible cliché that I should spare you, but it must be said: That album saved my life. When my mojo started working again, it was truly to the tune of ChesnuTT's Masterpiece—the album's tender/scandalous soul and power pop, its licentious lo-fidelity (in both senses of the word) scored my life for years to come. The singular black bedroom rock (and all that implies) of Masterpiece was indie as hell, but...
A quick history lesson: Cody ChesnuTT was a musician and songwriter minding his business in Atlanta, until his cousin's singing group was called out to California to be courted by none other than Suge Knight of Death Row Records. Suge called ChesnuTT late one night wanting to hear one of his songs, and soon ChesnuTT was being flown to Los Angeles to write for his cousin's group (not to mention singing on the Gridlock'd soundtrack and 2Pac's "Tattoo Tears"). That group ended up being shelved, but the engineer of Death Row's Can-Am Studios introduced ChesnuTT to the men who would be his future bandmates in a group called the Crosswalk. The Crosswalk got signed to Hollywood Records—but then in turn were suddenly shelved before they could release their debut album, Venus Loves a Melody. The band split, and a crushed ChesnuTT was left with all the equipment, resulting in Masterpiece—a totally, charmingly indie record with an MS Paint–esque cover (well before that was cool)—which received a huge word-of-mouth boost from in-the-know hiphop heads of taste.
"There was a lot of great support from artists," ChesnuTT tells me over the phone, all the way from his home in Tallahassee. "Guys like Questlove, Ishmael [Butler], Mos Def. Those guys did a lot to help spread the word on the album. I remember one day, me, Ish, Black Thought, Mos Def, Questlove, Common, and I think Jeru the Damaja were in Electric Ladyland, listening to the album right when it came out. I wish I had that footage." (Me too.) ChesnuTT developed a cultish fan base (ahem) that dutifully waited for a new album from the man—but after the birth of his son in 2004, little was heard from him. Aside from a track here ("Boils" from the 2006 Plague Songs project), an EP there (2010's Black Skin No Value), and a too-brief screen appearance (in Dave Chappelle's Block Party), it's been radio silence—until now.
Funded in full by a Kickstarter campaign and released last month, Landing on a Hundred is ChesnuTT's triumphant return. "It started coming about four and a half years ago," he tells me. "Melodies, phrases, concepts. I just took my time in putting all the pieces together. One thing I loved about this project is that I had no obligation, no timeline to meet... I really had the opportunity to just listen every day to what the songs wanted to do. I just allowed them to come in the most natural way possible. That was the one thing I learned from Headphone Masterpiece: Let it be, don't force it, don't try to chase it, just let it happen. If it's real, if it's speaking to you, then that's what you move on."
The album speaks volumes about its narrator, whose crosses of faith and failings of flesh on Masterpiece have now been replaced with a spiritual wealth and a familial, fatherly wisdom. Fans expecting more "Bitch, I'm Broke" or the pimp primer "Serve This Royalty" may be disappointed, but only if they somehow aren't moved by the soaring soul gospel of "Til I Met Thee" and the blood-rousing motherland celebration "I've Been Life." Even the sound is different: Masterpiece was made on a four-track in a bedroom and is sandpaper-rough; Hundred has got glow in its studio gleam. "Some people tell me they thought it would be a little more rough around the edges, the way Masterpiece was," he explains, patient as a priest. "The producer of the new album is a big fan and thought some people might be disappointed with the sound." He asks how I, as a fan, felt about that change, giving me my opening to heap praise on a personal hero. He proves as humble and thoughtful as I'd always imagined. "I think part of it is this state of arrested development," opines the singer, as we talk about the state of black radio. "We're afraid to embrace the fact that we're grown, that we're adults. The conversation in music is high school, coming from men in their 30s."
Personally speaking, ChesnuTT's new album couldn't have come at a better time: Things aren't like they were back then, knock on wood, but I confess, I've felt lost—chafing at my life's pace, craving some spiritual sustenance. The opening lines hit my heart: I was a dead man; I was asleep.
"When I first came out here, it was perfect," he says of the rural environs that created Hundred. "I was just coming off the road, you know the hustle and bustle of tour and LA and all that, and here I get dropped right in the middle of rural Tallahassee. Back to the basics. It was exactly what I needed, a perfect metaphor: Here I am on a dirt road, finding my way home."
At a concise 54 minutes, the 10-years-in-the-making album addresses weighty topics: the wounded self-worth of blacks ("What Kind of Cool (Will We Think of Next)"), the emptiness of money ("Under the Spell of the Handout"), what it means to make love work ("Love Is More Than a Wedding Day"). "It all needs a soundtrack," he tells me. "Music pushes everything. I just wanted to make a contribution... Fela [Kuti] said that 'music is the weapon of the future'—that inspired me to use my music to fight for the things that are important to me."
His appearance at the Sasquatch! Launch Party at the Neptune will be his second Seattle show ever, his first since coming to the Showbox with the Roots in 2002, a show I couldn't afford at the time. Seattle fans have been patiently waiting ever since for another, and he's glad to be coming back. Shabazz Palaces' Ishmael Butler is a friend, and ChesnuTT tells me about another Seattle connection dear to his (and a few others') heart: "A huge turning point for me, before Masterpiece, was Nirvana's Nevermind. That was a huge inspiration in terms of coming from the heart—and in a contemporary way, since of course all the great soul singers were always there. Nevermind brought it up to speed, like you can have this kind of energy and honesty at the same time. I always knew there was a certain energy I wanted to inject into the music, but I wasn't sure how to get there. When I heard Nevermind, I picked my guitar up, and things began to make sense." I know the feeling.