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Review: Cody ChesnuTT, 'My Love Divine Degree'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.

Cody ChesnuTT, <em>My Love Divine Degree</em>.
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Cody ChesnuTT, My Love Divine Degree.

Most musicians who achieve a certain amount of acclaim only to disappear from the public eye get cast as reclusive. The baggage that label carries has never quite fit Cody ChesnuTT. Even if you tried to pin it on him, he'd no doubt shake himself free. In between the release of his sprawling 2002 lo-fi debut, The Headphone Masterpiece, and the 2012 studio follow-up, Landing On A Hundred, the soul conjurer's mystique only grew. Yet he rebounded with an altogether different set of values. Instead of the reverence for pimping heard on Headphone's renowned "Serve This Royalty," Landing found ChesnuTT genuflecting before a pious altar.

After taking four years off to live, be a father to his family, and receive more divine inspiration, he's back with his deepest resolution yet. My Love Divine Degree is an offering straight from ChesnuTT's eccentric soul. Or, as he puts it, "this body of work is medicine for me." This time it's driven by an even stronger sense of responsibility — to his family, to the black diaspora, to the peaceful proliferation of all humanity.

And, somehow, we have Kanye West to thank for all this.

Recorded and mixed over the span of 18 months, the 13-song set mixes ChesnuTT's classic palette of beat-soul with the synth-funk of Chicago co-producer Anthony "Twilite Tone" Kahn. ChesnuTT met the Grammy-nominated producer, writer and DJ at a studio "in Wisconsin, of all places," he tells NPR, "at a Kanye session that was hosted by the artist Bon Iver." While in the wilds of the Badger State, with two of contemporary music's most ambitious iconoclasts and a collective of writers, artists and producers, "we discovered that we had a natural creative chemistry," ChesnuTT says of his collab with Twilite. "Within a year's time, we began work[ing on] my album."

They clicked instantly, forming a kinship that comes through in the music. "Both of us, being around during the '70s and '80s, knew exactly what the feeling/spirit of these songs should be and, without it ever being contentious or strained as some collabs can be, we always found the solutions." He also credits the jamming results to Twilite's bona fides as a DJ. "My Love Divine Degree would not groove the way that it does without Anthony 'Twilite Tone' Kahn."

But Chesnutt's old soul is still front and center. His guitar is clean and his heart is a river. He tends to split the difference between poetry and prophecy. Either way, love is always the muse.

Somehow he does all this without ever becoming a cliché. Which has to be hard, right, being a modern soul man in an immodest world, where social media is a constant playground for the sociopaths? Though at odds with the times, My Love Divine Degree could be a remedy for our collective ails. When ChesnuTT pleads to "let us feel the love right now," near the close of the album's finale, "Have You Heard From the Lord Today," it feels better than prayer. The medicine man is passing out fresh prescriptions again. Come and get some.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rodney Carmichael is NPR Music's hip-hop staff writer. An Atlanta-bred cultural critic, he helped document the city's rise as rap's reigning capital for a decade while serving on staff as music editor, culture writer and senior writer for the defunct alt-weekly Creative Loafing.