Chocolate Genius: Black Music

Chocolate Genius
Black Music

MARC ANTHONY THOMPSON (a.k.a. Chocolate Genius) is probably the only man on Earth who gets dolled up for confession. On the cover of Black Music, he appears sporting a suave brown suit (surely his Sunday best), his thick black hair rolled up in curlers. Thompson's priorities are showmanship and earnestness, which might explain why he tries to sing like a cross between Prince and Tom Waits. And while all his songs are confessional, Thompson craves attention more than absolution. He lets his charming delivery contend with a self-incriminating sense that he's dangerous, obsessive, and weak. Now why would a guy who wants to be adored portray himself as such an abominable asshole?

My guess: He gets off on it. Thompson's songs aren't merely self-deprecating, they're gleefully masochistic. Even when he's trying to tell a heartbreaking story about his mother ("My Mom"), he ends up bragging about his preadolescent alcoholism. "See that wood-paneled room? That's where I learned to drink," he sings. "See that hole in the wall, that was Seagram's, I think." And on "Hangover 5" he finds puking all over himself to be quite liberating.

My only complaint about Black Music is how calculated it often sounds. Despite his anguish, Thompson's music is restrained and taut. Part of the problem stems from giving three-chord assignments to virtuosos like keyboardist John Medeski, drummer Chris Wood, and guitarist Marc Ribot. While they rarely overplay, Thompson's crew makes a song called "Half of a Man" into something downright triumphant--even though it's about being a failed lover and a deadbeat dad.

"Half of a Man" resurfaces as the album's hidden closer, this time as a lo-fi, mostly acoustic demo. Thompson's chair creaks and wobbles, and he proceeds cautiously, aware that he's exposed and vulnerable. This stripped-down approach allows his grizzly voice finally to shine, but it also reveals a chord progression--and a voice--that recalls "Tears in Heaven." Then again, Thompson is sick enough to get off on that, too.

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