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Cody ChesnuTT is the best sort of egomaniac. He places himself at the center of his musical universe; he contains that universe within him. On his new album, Landing on a Hundred, he sings one song in the voice of the entire continent of Africa. When he writes a tune called "That's Still Mama," his mother is given to reflecting upon her son — that is, her divine little Cody, whom he addresses as "school boy" and "church boy." He composes a song titled "Don't Follow Me," as though thousands were clamoring to become his disciples. And sometimes he sings in the voice of a different character: a sinner redeemed.
ChesnuTT wants you to know that he's never smoked crack, as the man in "Everybody's Brother" says he did, but the songwriter has gotten inside the head of someone driven to craven behavior, who found a way out through good deeds and a strong spiritual life. Musically, ChesnuTT takes familiar sounds from classic soul and R&B. He phrases and croons in a manner that can remind you of a less-superhuman Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye or Curtis Mayfield. And ChesnuTT has a gift for making clichés ring with fresh clarity, as when he tells you that love and commitment are more than just the trappings of romance such as a wedding day.
Chesnutt, or at least the persona he presents, is an enthusiastically devotional person. In "Til I Met Thee," he addresses God, portraying his own life as empty until he found faith. He's a rip-roaring preacher whose sermons can be scrambled and confusing. When he delivers a song called "Under the Spell of the Handout," is he really suggesting that poor people should not accept charity, lest they lose their souls, their free will — or, as he puts it, commit "treason"? I don't know, but the song sure is catchy.
ChesnuTT's music emphasizes horns and keyboards and backup singers who echo his sloganeering. He's a preachy egomaniac, but a blissful, delightful one. In spite of his entreaty, I do want to follow him, even when he's leading me into a new musical wilderness.