The neo-soul star talks about his latest project, his hiatus and what today's R&B is lacking.
Over ten years have passed since Cody Chestnutt made his critically-acclaimed debut with the neo-soul LP The Headphone Masterpiece. In between that time, he’s been relatively low-key, appearing in Dave Chappelle’s music documentary Dave Chappelle's Block Party and releasing the 2010 EP Black Skin No Value. BET.com caught up with Chesnutt to discuss his latest album, Landing on a Hundred, his thoughts on R&B and, frankly, what he’s been up to over his long hiatus.
It’s been a decade since your last album, The Headphone Masterpiece. What took so long for you to put out Landing on a Hundred?
Just living. I felt I was really in a position as a man and an artist to move forward. I felt a transition was calling me, and I yielded to it. During that period of time, I became a father. So I opened myself up to a whole new life and took my time with it. And [I] allowed the music to just come to me in a genuine way. I wasn’t trying to force or chase it to try and keep up with the trends. It wasn’t a plan of mine to take 10 years, it just happened to take that amount of time
How was it choosing the absolute role as a parent over, say, not taking time from the music business?
It was extremely important. You’re trying to get to know this new human being and getting to know what this whole new experience is about. I didn’t want any distractions. I wanted to dive right into [fatherhood] so I could really be present in my child’s life. And that became my primary focus. The music will always be there.
Albums are supposed to take us on a journey. Tell us about the journey with Landing on a Hundred?
The most central thing happening in the album is just constant growth and forward mobility and evolution. The journey [with the music] is a person trying to move forward in life and maintain a certain commitment and fight for that commitment. That’s the thing that’s most present in the journey.
Please interpret the LP’s title, Landing on a Hundred, for us. What does that mean?
It’s just a play on the saying, “Keepin’ it one hundred.” Basically saying, “keeping it real” or landing on something that is real or truthful. And with the material, that’s what it felt like for me, like I was landing on something as truthful as I could get.
You tackle a lot of real life issues in your music. What inspired you to write some of the songs on this album?
Observing life as I was living it and as other people were living it. Taking their stories, taking my own stories, and putting them to song. For instance, the song "That’s Still Mama." That’s me addressing a serious issue with my nephew disrespecting his mother after she bailed him out a legal jam. He hadn’t been out of a courtroom more than an hour and he was talking to her like he was giving his girlfriend the business. That blew me away because I wasn’t raised to talk to my mother that way. Then you have a song like "Everybody’s Brother," where you have these different characters who’ve fallen victim to many distractions in life like drug addiction or abandonment issues or gambling, etc. But these people finally made it through the dark side. And I titled it "Everybody’s Brother" because everybody knows a brother like this.
Also, what inspired “Love is More Than a Wedding Day?"
That was from me trying to keep my marriage together. It was during a rough week for me and my wife. I mean the rhythm was off. I don’t know what was going on. It just wasn’t clicking that week, and the energy in the house was off. And I felt really down. So as I often do, I went to the music for some type of healing. So I picked [up] my guitar and started writing this chord and refrain. Then I went and played it for my wife instead of trying to talk about it. I just played the song for her and that began the healing process. She said she really liked it. And that started us back to communicating again. So I felt like, if the song helped us, let me develop it and maybe it could help someone else. I mean, people are in love with the idea of marriage and [a] wedding day. But it’s so much more than that. It’s a bigger commitment.
It’s been almost 20 years since the debut of the R&B subgenre “neo-soul.” What do you think of the evolution of the genre?
Well, my personal opinion is, I think the overall evolution of not just neo-soul but R&B in general is that it got away from the spirit and soul that created the art form in the first place. It just moved on to something else I couldn’t feel. It just lacks that kind of spirit the music was built upon. And that’s when you start losing the feeling. I would love to see the spirit come back so it can move and touch people.
Since you’re an artist into acoustic sounds, what were your feelings on the Beyoncé lip-synch scandal?
To be honest with you, I didn’t even care (laughs). I didn’t give two seconds of my time to that because there were so many more important things to be concerned with. I didn’t have an opinion one way or another.
Finally, coming off of Harry Belafonte’s moving speech at the NAACP Awards on the political responsibility of artists, what responsibility do you think musicians have to their audience?
I believe we have all the responsibility in the world. We are the gatekeepers. We can bring information that is unfiltered. We get a chance to uplift the spirit and mobilize. We can teach. I just feel we’ve gotten a little behind on doing that.
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(Photo: Vibration Vineyard)