SEX AND BRAGGADOCIO are the legal tender of R&B; so, incongruously, is religion. Artists famed for do-me discourses like "Sexy Motherfucker" (Prince), "Bump N' Grind" (R. Kelly), and "Brown Sugar" (D'Angelo) have never shirked from declaring their own No. 1-ness, but neither have they shirked from declaring their devotion to an Ultimate No. 1the Lord.
Thirty-two-year-old musical savant Cody ChesnuTT has already been hailed by The New York Times as a singular R&B innovator, but his originality comes more from his methods than his message. The boastfulness (check his modestly titled two-disc, 36-song debut, The Headphone Masterpiece), the sex ("I got a hard dick with a curve/and that's all you deserve, bitch"), and the religionMasterpiece's CD sleeve contains no less than 12 references to the Almightyare in full, standard effect. But in the high-stakes world of R&B, rife with celebrity producers and studio tricks, ChesnuTT is an anomaly in that he writes, produces, and plays all his own instrumentsthe entirety of the album was assembled in his L.A. bedroom. He also incorporates enough left-field musical influences, from stripped-down folk-hop to boppy '60s psychedelia and dirty old-school blues, to earn his own section at Tower. And the voice? Pure bastard child of Ben Harper and Terence Trent D'Arbythough neither will likely ever be caught running lines like "Thank you, Lord, for my mama/thank you, bitches, for my money."
It would follow that a man with so many songs to sing would have a lot to say. Not necessarily sosome are little more than sketches and no longer than two minutes; only occasionally do the tracks evolve into full-blown portraits. When they do, ChesnuTT shows his true strength: Cuts like "Serve This Royalty" and "Upstarts in a Blowout" are given the time to find their groove musically, and "Boylife in America" brilliantly strips the bling-bling aspirations of hip-hop culture down to its barest minimum with the chorus, "All I want is pussy, give me some religion, a brand-new Cadillac, and a winning lotto ticket." "The Seed," meanwhile arguably his best song and one that is elevated even further on the Roots' Phrenologycould be a modern classic, if only the lyrics were FCC-appropriate.
Like a thousand genuinely gifted artists before him, ChesnuTT needs an editor. He doesn't have that on Masterpiece, which keeps it from actually being one; the album's power is frequently diluted by repetition and filler. But with the future of R&B currently in the hands of listenable if unremarkable artists like Musiq and Craig David, ChesnuTT has the potential to truly make the genre vital and new once againeven as he brings along something old, something borrowed, and language too blue for commercial radio.