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“Know how to walk, know how to ride / Know how to stay fly, know how this time’s burning / But what we don’t know is, that ain’t gonna be enough / Know how to front, know how to hustle… / Know how to fake it till we make it / But what we don’t know is, that ain’t gonna be enough, no / What kind of cool will we think of next to hide behind?” – “What Kind of Cool?” Cody ChesnuTT
I have an almost unhealthy obsession with the way violence against blacks has seemingly escalated in the last decade or so. The roll-call of names of African Americans of all ages, genders and sexual orientations who have been killed by civilians and law officials alike, who have been unjustly imprisoned, whose economic realities are tied to shady corporate practices that have been granted political amnesty—that roll-call is staggering. My daily perusal of news sites is emotionally and psychically debilitating. Yet, I can’t seem to stop myself from taking it all in.
So, what does all of that have to do with Cody ChesnuTT’s sublime, overlooked, but very necessary 2012 release Landing on a Hundred? Everything.
ChesnuTT’s Landing nestles firmly in the tradition of Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, and the recently deceased Bobby Womack. (It’s true that those heavyweight names are routinely trotted out to authenticate the laughably inauthentic, but trust: ChesnuTT earns his spot.) As with those men when they were working in their prime, his is music is rooted in the now, the present tense of blackness—the bleakness and the beauty, the despair and the resilience. It’s local and diasporic all at once (count the number of times he shouts out Mother Africa on the album, connecting the dots of struggle and resistance shared by black people around the world.) And it’s one of the rare music artifacts by a 21st-century African American soul music artist (yeah, they do still exist) that actually reflects anything of what it is to be black and alive and awake in this very moment. Paradoxically, that is what makes it timeless.
And we had to wait ten years for it. ChesnuTT’s sprawling 2002 two-disc debut album, The Headphone Masterpiece, swaggered with the confidence of its creator—a singer/songwriter/musician with no qualms about wearing all his hats at once. A rumored live follow-up album never materialized, and fans had to make do with sporadic cameos and singles.
On Landing, the songs are lyrically taut and incisive. As bandleader, ChesnuTT is running a gorgeously tight ship, with backing vocals and musicians coalescing into something that nods to the past stylistically without ever succumbing to the laziness of making fetish of retro sounds and vibes.
In “I’ve Been Life,” ChesnuTT outlines the history of the intertwined impulses of attraction and repulsion that non-blacks have long held toward black bodies, life, and cultural innovation. Against a wall of gleaming horns he sings in a voice both gritty and lovely, “Since my birth I’ve been the greatest (say what, say what) / attraction on the earth…” It’s a “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” for the present day, when blackness is cheaply bought and sold, but rarely actually respected, certainly nothing to be proud of until the sales charts let you know if the caricature being sold is a hit or not.
Throughout the album, droll humor is mixed with the social commentary. On “Everybody’s Brother,” ChesnuTT deadpans, “I used to smoke crack back in the day / I used to gamble with money and lose / I used to dog the nice ladies, used to swindle friends / But now I’m teaching kids in Sunday school / and I’m not turning back…,” using humor to strip sanctimony from the path of salvation and redemption. He’s utterly serious about the message but unashamedly owning the human foibles in the mix.
And then there’s “Love Is More Than a Wedding Day,” a vulnerable love song that pointedly positions itself in opposition to the mercenary, materialistic motives that snake through too much contemporary R&B “love song” fare. “It’s more than a checkbook, yes, and it’s so much more than the hottest look…,” he sings in the song’s opening, but the closing lines, and the way he conveys them, find him pushing his elevated ode to romance and grown-up love into celebration of a higher and even deeper love—of self, of his struggling people, of blackness, of the God within and above. On an album where blues riffs and lush backing vocals and harmonies revive and repurpose traditional R&B arrangements and approaches, and where an undercurrent mournful quality (that stops short of defeatism) swims throughout, “Wedding,” is one of the album highlights. It’s the sound of tears, of hard-won and bitterly-fought-for joy.
As a chorus of women backing singers sing “I believe it,” over and over, ChesnuTT catches the Holy Ghost on his lead vocals: “This is for those who thought they couldn’t make it through, that thought about giving up, that thought about throwing in the towel. This is for those who didn’t know what they would do when they found themselves in the most challenging hour…”