Classic rap redefined by the Canadian prankster.
Wyndham Wallace 2011-06-14
He’s been an indie kid, a Jewish rapper, a soft rocker, a record-breaking solo pianist, a soundtrack composer, a producer (of Feist, Jane Birkin and Jamie Lidell), and a member of a band of puppets. Yet somehow that’s just not enough for Jason Beck aka Chilly Gonzales, the Canadian who burst onto the global scene in 1999 alongside the similarly playful Peaches. For The Unspeakable Chilly Gonzales, he’s decided to make the world’s first orchestral rap album.
As with so much of what Gonzales does, there’s a danger that this new record will fall into the pile marked ‘novelty’, but – as he’s consistently proven – the man is way too talented to allow anything so superficial to leave the studio. This time, the self-appointed "musical genius" admits that, "the genius is in the arrangements", and in his brother, Christophe Beck, he’s found the perfect foil. The composer has won an Emmy for his work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and also scored films as diverse as The Hangover and Garfield. So where most rappers would need to reach for their sampler, Gonzales most likely sat down with his brother to hatch the plan in a more relaxed manner. It certainly sounds that effortless.
Gonzales isn’t taking many chances, though: The Unspeakable… is a pithy 27 minutes and nine songs long, far too brief to outstay its welcome. Instead it flies past in a whirlwind of razor-sharp, self-deprecating one-liners and knowingly smart-arse comments about the state of the industry and the rap genre, all set against a backdrop of symphonic vignettes more familiar within epic Hollywood movies.
It opens with Supervillain Music, in which, against a complex compound time signature dominated by kettledrums and brass, he suggests we "come and listen to a schmuck talk about a bunch of random stuff". Having set out his stall – "I’m a lot of things but a left-wing singer songwriter I’m not" – he blasts through Party in My Mind, in which a decision to take a night off is closely examined against what sounds like a car chase through a North African souk, and Rap Race, in which a melancholic instrumental accompanies his (hopefully) mildly flippant defence of the mores of modern hip hop, inviting others to "cut your losses / maybe you prefer The xx or the Gossip".
It’s in that song that he also reveals his mode d’emploi – "I took my inner Larry David and exaggerated it" – and therein lays the secret of his appeal, selective though it might be. Whatever the setting he chooses, you know there’s always going to be enough intellect lying alongside the vulgarisms and cheap jokes to make him engaging. As he says in the final track, "My new album’s finished, you might not like it / But it’s good for you, eat your spinach". And if you choose not to, he’ll be along with a new flavour before too long. As that final song also advises, "one of these days I’ll shut up and play piano…"