Label Year is a feature in which I purchase all of the releases of a given record label for an entire calendar year and post on each one. 2011 will be devoted to Arts & Crafts out of Toronto. For more info, check out the introduction.
- Artist: Chilly Gonzales
- Title: The Unspeakable Chilly Gonzales
- Format: Digital Album
- Release Date: 06/07/2011
- Catalog Number: ACX068
I can't tell you for sure if The Unspeakable Chilly Gonzales is indeed "the world's first-ever all-orchestral rap album," as described, but it is certainly the first thing like it I've ever heard and definitely a collection of rap songs backdropped by an orchestra. It is at first an odd fusion, yet it grew on me over time. I would be interested to see if Chilly hasn't started a trend that will become more prevalent. But let's not worry about the future when there's an album in the here and now to discuss.
We last heard from Chilly Gonzales a few months ago with the release of the "You Can Dance" single and remixes. Unspeakable is a pretty far departure from that, featuring a heavy dose of Chilly on vocals – rapping each song, more accurately – and becoming much more expansive musically. This is the first digital album Arts & Crafts has released this year, perhaps that is because of the risky, out-there nature of the project. I mean, an album by someone who doesn't always even sing on his own albums choosing to rap, over production completely different than the norm in hip-hop, and in fact not even produced so much as composed? I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but overall, digital feels like the right format. It's ambitious work that should be shared, but it would likely not be too well-suited for a more standard release as a physical product.
Without any question, the music on this album is impressive. The tracks come across as "classical music meets film score," and there is a lot of diversity to the instrumentation, tempos, and tones. When the first track, "Supervillain Music" kicks in, it evokes John Williams (particularly the Imperial music in the Star Wars trilogy), and the late blasts of trumpet remind me of Morricone. Chilly constructed intricate and evocative soundscapes, and I'm glad he chose to include instrumental versions of five of the nine songs. Doing so allows a listener a better chance to appreciate them. They are great in their own right and take on different meanings and resonance when purely instrumental.
The other reason it's nice to have the instrumentals is because Chilly's rapping really dominates the proceedings. I haven't heard any of his earlier rap tracks (there are a few on his previous albums), so I found it a bit jarring initially to get so much of it here. He doesn't always sound great as a rapper, but he is clearly taking it seriously and not holding back. He didn't make things easy on himself by choosing to go with an orchestra instead of the latest hip producers, so degree of difficulty counts for something.
Chilly may not have the flow down pizzat but he does know how to write some clever rhymes. He drops cultural references like "Go gray like Dorian," and "Obsessed with cars like Ric Ocasek." I like his use of musical terms and references as well. For instance, he comments how the first track is in 6/8 – which it is – and later talks about finding his "Inner Erik Satie." How he riffs on beans in the track by that name as an extended metaphor for status and socioeconomics verges on remarkable. Also, we gain some keen insights into the man's mind, which has a few profound insights. I hear "Party in my Mind" as an exploration of the discipline of creativity, how you can't always have a social life because it has to often be sacrificed to produce a song.
The other fascinating subtext is the commentary on how the project will be received. There are numerous occasions where Chilly alludes to the potential that people aren't going to like it, that he isn't skilled as a rapper. The closing tandem of "Who Wants to Hear This?" and "Shut Up and Play the Piano" have a lot of provocative moments on what the purpose of music is, how to define if it is good or not, and questioning what value do risks and experiments have. There are no easy answers and I was surprised by such intense grappling on an orchestral rap album. But that's kind of the point. Something so left-field allows one to tackle such issues from a new perspective, or even see them in the first place.
This won't be for everyone and it does stand apart from everything else released by Arts & Crafts so far this year. But I encourage you to listen at least once. It's innovative and boundary pushing. It may not always hit the mark, but in taking the shot, Unspeakable Chilly Gonzales proves it is worth a spin.
Has anyone ever heard anything like this? What do you think of it? Musically, lyrically, both? Very curious for reactions to this one. For a taste of the album, check out the medley video below. You can buy the album here (or on iTunes). Here's Chilly's website.
Next Up: Stars – The Bedroom Demos (Digital Album)
Previously on Label Year: