When I asked the clerk where the new disc by Chocolate Genius was filed—Soul or Rock? (more on that later)—he led me to the Rock section.
He said someone told him, in a feeble attempt to describe his music, that Chocolate Genius (Marc Anthony Thompson) reminded him of Elliot Smith. A more appropriate comparison would be a hybrid of Sly Stone, Jeff Buckley and Nick Drake, what with all Thompson's poetic genius and self-introspective angst, and all.
Prince, drug abuse and insanity aside, not since Sly Stone has there been another black performance artist—after all, that's really what they are—who's been unafraid of his own potential.
And in that fearlessness resides all these ambiguities, hence my confusion over where in the record store Chocolate Genius would fall. Despite that there's no telling photo on the cover some dimwit clerk could dump him in Soul on the name alone.
In total (including his debut Black Music), Thompson's oeuvre is devoid of any typical blackmale-Soul-Singer-Teddy-Pendergrass-take-your-panties-off-I'm-gonna-rock-your-world-bullshit posturing excepting for obvious self-deprecatory flourishes for the purpose of making a point about his own emotional frailties.
Thompson comes correct. And with a name like Chocolate Genius it's gotta be good.
"Love" has a goofy, breathy chorus ("love, love, love") sung by a woman in cartoonish simplicity. Meanwhile, Thompson sing/speaks crazy couplets about the improbabilities of intersecting minutiae in the universe ("and a noise in the forest/don't mean damn to me/unless it happens to be/my family tree") like Bryan Ferry doing his best Bob Dylan impersonation.
And this, then, is the genius of Thompson's alter ego, Chocolate Genius: He, like the other best poets/writers of his generation, is self-concerned to the point of sensitivity, sarcastic to the point of self-deprecation but cognizant enough of the world outside Chocolate Genius' Playhouse that his meaning is clear to us mortals outside his head.
However, the tragedy (and the cool thing) about Thompson/Genius is if more white people knew who he is he'd be just above ground like, say, Ben Harper. Further, if more black people knew his music he'd be, say, not destined to be the only black person at his own concerts.
Thankfully, any traces of the psychosis inherent in defying genres and straddling race-based musical identities don't show in his music. (Remember Prince's "Controversy:" "Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?" In retrospect, who cares?)
His songwriting—sparse, oblique and wry—is consistently strong.
He is at his best, most raw and most naked (like the Blessed Trinity of Drake, Buckley and Stone) when he considers and questions, like a bad high-school term paper, God's inhumanity to man and thus, our inhumanity to one another.
"Planet Rock" is a heartbreaking, sparse tale of the urban blight of a female crack addict. He even muses over "wasting a song because she's gone." I'm glad he did.
On "Infidel Blues" he layers his David Bowie-sounding falsetto to frightening effect to unravel a "prayer" about cheating, asking his parents for forgiveness for what he's learned "in low lights and nylons."
"The Eyes of the Lord" is a painfully slow and percolating tome that goes: "If I feel high/he is there to remind me/that I can't get up/off of the floor." So, is he talking about God, the god in us or the powerful over the small? Just when you think you've got it figured out, his craggy voice comes through: "sexy baby jesus hard/sexy baby jesus hurt/sexy baby jesus tired/sexy baby jesus lost/just like us."
I dunno. Could be for effect or shock value; nonetheless, it is refreshingly staggering. Thompson seems to throw words in the air, pairing them up according to how they land on the floor, a la Tom Waits.
If it sounds challenging to be a Chocolate Genius/Marc Anthony Thompson fan, it is. The listening and the living ain't easy. But it's all good because he expects to get from us as good as he gives it to us.
And it's not just the lyrics. ("bossman kiss got me so afraid/am I gay or just tired?/a hole is just a hole/unless you got a shovel and you're bored," from "Bossman Piss in my lemonade")
The music resonates—sweeping, thumping and stopping abruptly—much like Rickie Lee Jones' earlier work or even Frank Zappa's. Waits cohort Marc Ribot, Jazz bassist Abe Laboriel, Jr. and Rock phenom Chris Whitley, among many others, add and subtract from Thompson's vision like doped-up Pictionary players. Hip-Hop chanteuse Vinia Mojica (Hi-Tek, Mos Def, Arto Lindsay, et. al.) even colors the background canvases.
The good news is that Chocolate Genius fans do exist, as witnessed by the response to the review here of Black Music.
There is no bad news.
The addendum, though, is that perhaps enough people will pay and pay attention to Thompson/Genius so he can enjoy a modicum of anonymous celebrity like Me'Shell Ndegeocello, Toshi Reagon and a host of other far-out black genius angels.
Tell two friends.