Released in 2002 it was Cody ChesnuTT’s debut – arriving, seemingly, out of nowhere, the album is a Big Serve: 36 tracks, two discs, everything from Brother With An Ego which is less than 15 seconds long – through to 6 Seconds which lasts for around four and a half minutes.
Cody ChesnuTT became known through his appearance on the song The Seed 2.0 by The Roots. Then it turned out – people found out – that the song was actually his. The Roots had covered it, lifting the energy somewhat, ramping it up, adding a rap. Here’s the ChesnuTT original.
But really the two versions of The Seed was what sold The Headphone Masterpiece. That and the fact that it contained 35 mysteries. One song to whet the appetite – a different version to The Roots’ hit single adaptation. And then a bunch of strange, sprawling mystery items.
There were comparisons to Prince and Lenny Kravitz – vocally he definitely sounded (at times) like Kravitz. And, well the Prince thing came about from some of the lyrical perversion and from the sprawling solo-project attitude – also the branding of himself as an iconoclast. ChestnuTT, like the Purple One, was often self-referencing if not always self-aware. Maybe he was both – but one thing he was sure of was himself.
There were other connections to Prince – the fact that this was a form of slow-jam R’n’B that referenced so much from pop and rock’s history as well as from funk and soul and the fact that ChesnuTT seemed to go wherever his instincts took him – misogyny that may or may not have been part of a character, a range of material that he simply presented to the listener; a gift from the muse. It was if he was saying judge the result, not the man that made it.
And speaking of simply presenting it, The Headphone Masterpiece had none of the usual sheen that usually marked a funk/soul/R’n’B album. This was, essentially, a 36-song demo-suite; a collection of four-track solo recordings with the looping tape hiss and drum-machine patterns all part of the sound, part of the myth.
The lo-fi production helped sell this album to a whole new audience. It was essentially an indie-sounding hip-hop album – near enough at the time to a one of a kind; an album that floated above a few genres, a double-album that hovered around, never being tied down.
It’s always been a favourite for me – one I’ve excerpted from, or sat and listened to all 36 tracks in one sitting – so often a double-album is only good for one disc at a time. Listening to it now, over a decade on from its release, I’m prepared to call it a classic double album. Its lasting appeal is that it exists in its own bubble – it is so clearly its own thing, uninterested in being anything else. The scope of it – the spread of the web – was such that it actually had a wide, lasting appeal as a result.
If you haven’t heard it – I recommend it. If it’s been a while since you played it – take it out today and give it a listen.
In the wake of Landing On A Hundred (the long-delayed follow-up album) it is The Headphone Masterpiece that still stands on its own.
I found ChesnuTT almost apologetic, born-again (in at least some sense) and embarrassed by a lot of the content of The Headphone Masterpiece when I spoke to him. Well, fair enough. He’s a different person now. Maybe addiction was flowing through him to power The Headphone Masterpiece. As a changed man that’s perhaps hard to reconcile – but as a lasting musical statement, as something truly both weird and wonderful I find myself forever drawn to this mystifying debut, not to the material that followed.