Minstrel Tension

From race to religion, Chocolate Genius tells it like it is.

Chocolate Genius, with Me'Shell NdegéOcello Agora Theatre, 5000 Euclid Avenue 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 21

$22.50 advance, $25 day of show


Rhythm & brains: Chocolate Genius redefines black - music.
Rhythm & brains: Chocolate Genius redefines black music.
If the radio charts were the only indication, black music would be all about the booty, not the brain. It's about shakin' it, not about delirium tremens; it's about rollin' in the Benz, not about rolling in the gutter. Contemporary black music, at least as the industry conceives it, traffics in wish-fulfillment: Gucci and gats and thong-sporting shorties getting their freak on.

In 1998, Marc Anthony Thompson, who goes by the name Chocolate Genius, released an album called Black Music that didn't mention booty once -- unless you count his own "black ass," which gets "kicked to the curb" in "Hangover #5." Defining itself by race and then carefully dismantling every vicious stereotype, Black Music is populated not by pimps and playas, but by runaway dads, half-men, and self-loathing drunks with cheap excuses.

With arrangements that glide from sinuous '70s soul to jangly indie pop, from vaudeville to avant-jazz, from dark folk rock to cracked blues to sinister funk, Thompson's songs are excoriating confessionals, at once bilious and tender, ironic and intimate. In "My Mom," the singer goes home to visit his mother, who has Alzheimer's disease: "See that wood-paneled room, that was where I learned to drink/See that hole in the wall, that was Seagram's I think/It's been five years and some change/And this world is getting so strange/But this house smells just the same/And my mom, she don't remember my name."

In an e-mail interview, Thompson explains that the album's title was less a description than a challenge: "As long as my skin is this color, race will be an unavoidable and hindering label for people that are stuck in that archaic mindset. Of course, I take a special pride in the achievements of people that look like me, but I am foremost a citizen of the planet. Calling the first record Black Music was my way of challenging the people who have to file, sell, and categorize music by genre. Other than that, hopefully, the most resonant themes on that record were universal -- beyond race."

If Black Music was a heartbreaking pun about racial stereotypes, Godmusic, its follow-up, is gospel for the nihilist. "Planet Rock" is a love song about a crackhead: "Heaven knows, but it don't care," Thompson sings wearily against an undulating trip-hop score. "The Eyes of the Lord," a percolating quiet-storm ballad, contains the whispered refrain "Sexy baby Jesus hard/Sexy baby Jesus hurt/Sexy baby Jesus tired/Sexy baby Jesus lost." Salvation is a sick lie, but in physical love, Thompson finds solace, at least, if not redemption. On "Infidel Blues" he prays, "Father, forgive me, for yes I have sinned/But to drink her bathwater I'd do it all over again." As on Black Music, the sonic landscape is richly textured and full of surprises; it combines dark piano riffs, scraped cellos, twitchy atmospheric clicks and bleeps, angelic female choirs, washes of synths, rhythmic snoring, and chiming guitars. Thompson's elastic vocals, however, are the real draw. His warm, buttery baritone shifts to a corrosive croak and then to an improbable silvery falsetto. With a voice that's alternately soulful and sardonic, seductive and abrasive, he manages to evoke Al Green and Bob Dylan without really sounding like either.

The genius of Chocolate Genius doesn't stop with the performance, however. The CD booklet that accompanies Godmusic opens to a photo of Thompson, painted white and bowing his head as if in prayer; on his bare chest is a scarlet, upside-down cross. "I've always been into the graphic arts," Thompson explains. "Before I was chained to the luxury of being a recording artist, I thought advertising design was going to bring home the proverbial bacon. As a matter of fact, my first band attempts were shameless excuses to design fliers. When I was signed to Warner Bros. [Thompson now records for V2], the head of the art department liked how I did my cover so much that he hired me as a freelance artist for some of their other campaigns. It's not such a stretch. Ask Miles Davis, Don Van Vliet, or David Byrne. Shit, even John Tesh picks up a paintbrush now and then. Don't tell anyone I know who John Tesh is, okay?"

Asked whether his subject matter is autobiographical, Thompson doesn't pull any punches: "Goethe said that all of his work was 'fragments of a great confession.' I couldn't agree more. Besides, I'm too lazy to make this shit up. That's what takes me so long between records. I need lyric food. You know: heartbreaks, true love, glory, defeat, some gluttony, a lot of sloth. You know, all the righteous virtues. A really good hangover or near-death experience is always good for a few gems."

Beyond his own life experience, Thompson finds inspiration in a wide range of artists and performers: "I just switched to German MTV, and right when I read this [question], Bubba Sparxxx's 'Ugly' came on. It's brilliant. I want something like that on my next record! I like the Coen brothers' movies. Working my way through Jared Diamond's book Guns, Germs, and Steel. Hanif Kureishi's The Black Album is traveling with me. [Me'Shell] NdegéOcello has been impressing me nightly as we tour. I could go on for quite a while. Architecture is particularly inspiring, as I travel through these cities with such rich history."

One of the cities through which Thompson will be traveling is Cleveland, when Chocolate Genius opens for NdegéOcello at the Agora. A live Chocolate Genius set is as strange and arresting as the recordings. "My love affair with the audience is like any other love affair," Thompson says. "The highs are why we keep on believing in love, but all too frequently, we take each other for granted. We flip the songs nightly. Sometimes the only thing that remains is a fragment of the lyrics. Other times, we are faithful as locked-down cellmates. I got to learn that Bubba Sparxxx tune for St. Louis. Man, that rocks."

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