“You’re about to be ear-fucked,” warns Chilly Gonzales on his latest project – an all-orchestral rap album. He reckons it’s the world’s first and a quick Google search suggests he’s probably right, so we’ll run with it for now. After 12 years and eight albums, the Canadian piano virtuoso/electro producer/film director and self-professed “musical genius” needed a new stamp on his CV, and this high-concept caper isn’t as Unspeakable as it sounds. Before you get the cold sweats remembering Coolio ripping ‘Canon In D’ for ‘C U When U Get There’, this isn’t a mere sample-fest – Chilly is backed by original arrangements from his brother Christophe Beck, the Hollywood film composer.
Musically, it’s off on a tangent from the electro-vaudeville stomp of last year’s Boys Noize-produced album Ivory Tower, but fans of ‘I Am Europe’and ‘The Grudge’ will welcome back the deadpan spoken-word monologues on …Suite, heavy on puns, quirky word association and disparate references, from Eric Cartman to Gordon Gecko to Dorian Gray. In the face of hip-hop heavyweights, Chilly sees himself at the lighter end of the rap seesaw. MF Doom may be an Earth-conquering Supervillain and the Wu-Tang Clan will always be mystical kung fu masters, but Chilly channels his “inner Larry David”, spouting “verbal gonorrhoea.” The “big sweaty Jew” feels like a gatecrasher in the ‘Rap Race’, admitting: “I wanna be Tony Soprano, but I’m better known on the piano.” This apologetic schtick runs through this snappy half-hour record, and he anticipates the backlash by admitting his music is “just a bit too clever, a bit too smug”, on ‘Who Wants to Hear This?’ The modesty is all an act though – on ‘Bongo Monologue’ he boasts: “I could play a whole set with one hand solo, call me BobaFett, the other hand rolling up a jazz cigarette.”
He’s more at home in his virtuoso guise, calling himself a “Cyborg Gershwin” on ‘Supervillain Music’, amid timpani rolls and gushing strings. Lines like “the harmony’s French but the melancholy melody’s so Slavic” mightn’t describe the compositions to the lay person, but composer Beck’s day job leaves us plenty of handy film references. ‘Supervillain Music’ evokes Morricone’s Spaghetti Western scores and the short violin stabs on ‘Self-portrait’ has touches of Philip Glass’ Koyaanisqatsi. Lead single ‘Party In My Mind’ is a riot of bongos, marching snares and eastern strings that contradicts Chilly’s caricature of the lounge lizard in pyjamas and slippers.
Gonzales lets the joker mask slip the odd time, when the real Jason Beck steps up, admitting: “10 years in, still the underdog, I got a hundred songs on a hundred blogs.” Over delicate treated keys that recall Aphex Twin’s Drukqs interludes, he wonders if he should just follow his ‘real’ vocation and chase the critics who lapped up his 2004 Solo Piano album. But as the chattery voices in his head beg him to just ‘Shut Up And Play The Piano’, you just know there’s no chance. You imagine Chilly will keep everyone second-guessing for years – at least until he grows gracefully into those pyjamas and slippers.