The Expansive Sounds of an Unsung Album Called “Black Music”

Some obsolete technologies are challenging to explain even to those of us who lived through them. In a few cases, I even relied on them, or thought that they might be the only tools through which I could process parts of the world. And then they’d vanish. When I mention them to people now, no one seems to remember. The listening pods at Columbus Metropolitan Library branches are one such technology. By my early teen-age years, in the late nineties, the cassette tape was definitively dead as the primary vessel for music consumption. I’d spent the previous years dubbing tapes from the radio or from my oldest brother’s enormous collection. Now I was dismayed to discover that you could barely find a Walkman cassette player for sale in stores. The CD was in, and soon enough there would be an explosion of peer-to-peer file-sharing networks, after which blank silver disks with album names haphazardly scrawled on them would infiltrate high schools and shopping-mall hallways and college dorms. (One could, of course, copy music from CD to cassette, but then you’d be the fool carrying around the aforementioned passé Walkman cassette player in 1998.)

If you wanted a CD, you had to buy a CD. But if you couldn’t buy a CD, at least in my neighborhood, you could go to the Livingston branch of the library and settle into a listening pod. “Pod” is, I think, a bit generous. It was more of a cubicle, in the darkened, far reaches of the library, outfitted with a chair and thin dividing walls between you and your neighbors on either side. Headphones hung on a hook on the wall in front of you, above a small CD changer, where you could pull your seat in and cycle through two or three preloaded options. During late summer in Ohio, when relentless storms shatter the unbearable humidity, we teen-agers would pack the listening pods, waiting out the rain and savoring the final days of freedom before school began. At the mercy of whichever librarian had the task of loading the disks that week, we could press Play inside this small cavern and almost disappear. This is why I remember it as pod-like, I think. It felt like sliding into a machine that might take you beyond the Earth.

This is where I first heard “Black Music,” a 1998 album by the musical collective Chocolate Genius, Inc., led by the New York-based musician Marc Anthony Thompson. Thompson had released two previous solo albums under his own name; a self-titled one, from 1984, had featured his only charting song to date, the danceable “So Fine,” which hit No. 101 on the Billboard “Bubbling Under Hot 100” chart. (You can’t find his solo work on streaming services, though used copies are available on Discogs.) In the nineties, he began to perform under the moniker Chocolate Genius and recruited a collective of musicians from the New York scene. He’d known and played with some of them for years, like the cellist Jane Scarpantoni, of the downtown band the Lounge Lizards, and the guitarist Marc Ribot, an alum of the same group. “Black Music” was the collective’s first album, released on V2 Records. As a curious teen-ager, confined to a claustrophobic but welcoming pod inside an east-side Columbus library, I didn’t know any of this backstory, and it wouldn’t have mattered if I did. The universe was inside the headphones, and when I reached for them I heard the album already in motion, as if Thompson’s voice—a scratchy, aching moan—were waiting for someone to find it.

To name an album “Black Music” is to leave oneself open to theories and interpretations. Let the history books tell it, and Black music doesn’t reflect the tastes or achievements of Black folks in any way I’d wanna claim. Let the blues tell it, and Black music ain’t all that far off from letting the Church tell it, which means singling out the seekers of salvation arriving at their altars to plead or confess. I would not recommend letting the radio tell it, but the radio is gonna have a say one way or another, and in the late nineties Black music as defined by the radio (at least the stations beaming into my Midwestern home) seemed as capacious to me as it had ever been. The hyper-commercialization of hip-hop had reached a crescendo, and some airwaves were crowded with slick rap hits featuring extravagant but monochromatic samples—old soul and disco peeled from the past and stretched onto the present, songs once about love and desire and longing now serving as wallpaper for raps about surviving long enough to fall into the kind of wealth that might make some folks wish you were dead. But, on another station, R. & B.’s turn toward pop signalled another sound for Black music: Monica and Brandy’s tug-of-war over some no-good boy who wasn’t worth the time anyway; Mya and early Destiny’s Child. Turn the dial yet again and Black music sounded acoustic, sparse, what some might label neo-soul: Maxwell and what felt like the never-ending season of Lauryn Hill; on college radio, OutKast, Black Star, Styles of Beyond, Gang Starr, and even the grittiness of early DMX. It felt—at least to me—like I could access, at my fingertips, Black music in any form or shape I could ever desire.

Yet “Black Music” never really found its place in this cornucopia, perhaps because its sound—part neo-soul, part indie pop, part gospel, part dark blues, part funk—was not easily categorized. Its opener, “Life,” has Thompson’s voice weaving in and out of a tiptoeing bass groove, half-mumbling in a way that sounds reminiscent of an eighties Tom Waits record. The next tune, “Half A Man,” sounds like it might be at home on nineties alternative college radio. “Black Music” was heralded in, among other places, Spin, Pitchfork, and a Rolling Stone album guide from 2004. But critics seemed eager to laud the project for what it wasn’t, or to position it as some kind of outlier, an answer to the Bad Black Music with its guns and gold. In a 2002 retrospective for the alt weekly Cleveland Scene, one writer described the album as “defining itself by race and then carefully dismantling every vicious stereotype,” noting the absence of “pimps and playas” in the songs. It puzzled me then, as it does now, that the album would be deconstructed in this way—pulled apart from its relationship to Blackness with a suggestion that the music was somehow running from the stamp of its title. In Rolling Stone, the critic Mike Rubin wrote that the album’s title had “less to do with the color of Thompson’s skin than with the content of his compositions.” I struggle with these small critical contortions, because they reflect a failure to understand how and where Blackness resides within the album’s songs. They reposition the album and its primary architect in a space Beyond Black—a space that some musicians might covet, but none that I love.

“Don’t Look Down,” the third track on “Black Music,” begins with Thompson speaking over sombre swells of guitar. “You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about Jesus,” he says. “I suppose that means he’s been thinking a lot about me.” If you are a distracted listener, or maybe even just listening in a room humming with light, everyday sounds, you might miss what comes next, which is Thompson uttering an inquisitive but exhausted “I don’t know.” There is a melancholy running through the album which contains faint complexions of nihilism—complexions that I, as a listener, understand as born out of living in a world that has done someone wrong, or in present hours haunted by one’s past sins. Many of the songs operate as extended, heartbreaking confessionals. In “My Mom,” a down-tempo ballad, the speaker returns to the house of his mother, who is living with Alzheimer’s. The tune acts as a tour of sorts, with the narrator pointing out the room where he learned to get drunk and the walls that he drunkenly punched holes in. The house looks and feels the same, he says, but then a harsh volta arrives: “and my mom / she don’t remember my name.”

The album is teeming with lyrical moments like this, wrapped neatly in precise instrumentation, particularly from Ribot, whose guitar hovers at a low frequency until finding the right pocket to loudly bend into. These small devastations work even when a listener well versed in her own catalogue of woes can predict what must be coming. “Half a Man” opens with the lyrics “Save yourself, me I’ll be fine / And save your breath, stay away from mine,” and we sense that we’re hearing from a guy who walked out of a door and never returned. But the foreknowledge doesn’t offer much comfort when the song confirms the desertion. This is one way that the blues sustains itself. I don’t turn to the blues looking to be surprised by a revelation of pain, or displeasure, or ache. I am interested, primarily, in how you have furnished your self-fashioned purgatory, which “Black Music” reveals beautifully throughout, perhaps nowhere more so than in the back-to-back songs “Hangover Five” and “Hangover Nine.” The former is sparsely arranged, featuring a haphazardly twinkling piano. The latter is a percussion- and guitar-driven funk tune interspersed with a droning horn. Both are laments, overflowing with questions. In “Hangover Five,” Thompson sings like he’s at the end of a heavy sigh; “Why do they always say, ‘Let’s be friends?’ ” hangs over the edge of the chorus like two feet swinging from the edge of a building before their owner considers the height and loses the nerve. “Hangover Nine” ends on more urgent, more desperate terms and tones, with Thompson near-shouting, “Where are my keys? Has anybody seen my keys?” before settling into quietly muttering, “Oh God / oh, my God / I’ll never / do / this / again.”

Maybe it’s that I know Black folks like this, and always have. Certainly it is that I have been Black folks like this, and might be again. By “like this” I mean that I loft my proclamations and curiosities toward a god whose existence I am skeptical of, most days. I have no concrete belief in Heaven, beyond the feeling that, if it is real, there are some people whom I love up there, preparing me a room, and that’s enough for me to at least be slightly fearful of any divine vengeance. I believe that I have suffered enough to gain entry to the kingdom, but I am also not eager to do the math to determine whether my suffering is outweighed by those who have suffered owing to my sometimes reckless living. (It doesn’t work that way anyway, or so the priest might say.) “Black Music” is one of the great confessional albums because it doesn’t shy away from the kind of self-loathing that comes with the realization that you want to be better than you have been but don’t necessarily know how to be. You’ve used up all your “next time I’ll”s and “never again”s, and so it is just you, up against the hard world with no cushion of potential forgiveness. It feels as honest as a drunk punching a hole in a wall that he has no money to fix, as honest as stepping over someone asking for change when you’ve just cashed your check. I know the people who haunt these songs. I’ve been both the person asking for change and the one with money in his pocket.

A confessional poet can operate at any remove he wishes. He can say, “The speaker in the poem is not me, even if I am speaking in first person,” and that can be true. But the trick of the “I” isn’t who you are or are not or what you have or haven’t endured. It is what you can make a reader or a listener believe. Thompson is a brilliant writer of the confessional because he seems to understand this. There’s the question of truth vs. beauty, and then there are the writers who discard the notion that the two should be at odds at all. Enough beauty, crafted just so, and you might believe anything a song asks you to. The album cover of “Black Music” features Thompson sitting at the foot of a bed against a wall covered with a heavy floral curtain. His hands, adorned with rings, lie at his sides on the neat white linens. He is wearing a suit and tie, but his hair is in rollers. He looks down, seemingly toward his feet. There are no words accompanying the photo. When I was a kid, tucked into the library listening pod, I would fixate on this image, and the man in it, and after a while the songs would animate him in my mind. He was moving through rain-soaked streets. He was making excuses for his misdeeds while someone threatened to leave. In this way, before I even knew it, the album was teaching me to write.

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