By right, Detroiters like Kenny Dixon Jr. should be bitter. They were forced to watch their city die, only to see its ruins romanticized by hipsters and academics as a sort of modern Picturesque. The city's cultural output suggests, though, that its people never saw their failure under the sign of either the purely negative or the sentimental. On the contrary: they have spent a lot of energy creating alternate worlds that refuse the harsh reality of the American economy.
How can we understand Detroit Techno—a space of pure industrial fantasy—except against the closing of factories, and the collapse of the Modernist grid into a half-agrarian patchwork? How to explain the city's stubbornly positive strain of House, in a place where more than 6,000 houses have been taken down in the last five years?
One byproduct of collapse seems to be a strange kind of freedom—an atmosphere in which artists have been willing to take big risks and create tiny, eccentric worlds. Failure kills, but it also makes space for surprise: cinemas become parking lots, white boys become rap gods. In a place where the basic condition of life is impossibility, the unlikely has become a kind of artistic medium.
Dixon, aka Moodymann, is an icon of his city's bent for self-making: an inventive, charmingly crotchety character who always seems to be having a joke at our expense. This may be why Detroit is such a strong presence on his luminous self-titled album, released on the eponymous KDJ label. On "No," Moody asks "are y'all mad 'cause I'm a local Detroiter?" An extended sample from Richard Pryor imagines Homo sapiens emerging in Africa, asking, "where the fuck am I, and how do you get to Detroit?" The city comes to sound aspirational, almost utopian—for the first half at least, until the famously high murder rate comes up, in the intro to a spooky, thickset re-tooling of Lana Del Rey's "Born To Die." From here, the humour turns dark, and Dixon's ironic performance gets more complicated.
Moodymann's personal kingdom works, in many ways, like a fun-house mirror of Afro-American music—overseen by his distorted alter ego, a Blaxploitation Mephistopheles (see the album cover). All the familiar parts are there. Very familiar, in fact, as Moodymann likes to mess with clichés, in particular. But nothing sounds quite the way you'd expect it. It's as if Soul, Blues, R&B, Hip Hop, and the orchestral pimp-Baroque of Mayfield and Hayes have suddenly been transposed into the language of House and Techno. It's an artificial move that sounds remarkably natural, and hints at the scale of the talent at work here. So does the surprising warmth that Dixon somehow wrings out of electronic genre pieces, especially at the low end. Many tracks have a tight, organic room-sound that could have come from one of Motown's famous session teams.
The anachronism is very, very intentional. Dixon has long insisted on House and Techno as merely the latest points in a progression of black music. He has recalled in many interviews the inclusive nature of the sounds played in Detroit, that "we listened to everything."
The album seems to ask what would happen if all of it existed in a shared present—that is, if the pleasures of rare taste made time irrelevant. There's that nimble organ on "Ulooklykicecreaminthesummertyme," which follows a trajectory linking light Jazz to AM radio funk, to The Revolution. Muddy Waters sounds oddly present singing "Mannish Boy" over the bubbling fretlessness of "Sunday Hotel." Moody's own voice has a timeliness that's also hard to place, a mix of gravel and smile that sometimes sounds, in contrast to Waters', like a sample. Tempo-wise, Dixon places a lot of his tracks at the border between House and Disco, making it hard to pin them down historically. To nail down this vibe, there are many clips that bring in fragments of Detroit's history, its fantasies and violences and classic records. Tracks like "You're 2 Moody" sound a bit like Too $hort's "$horty The Pimp." But like everything here, it doesn't feel the same. Its irony is built around a core of reverence. Moody worships at this church; it's a small but important difference.
Like a number of other albums in the last year—Darkside's 2013 release, for example—"Moodyman" feels microcosmic. But not because it is constrained. Dixon is the ruler of a tiny kingdom; but he re-arranges its finite landscape into a whole lot of configurations. It recalls days when Rap artists still enjoyed the freedom of pastiche, before getting bogged down in the theatre of being "real." Perhaps this is why parts of the record recall other older material: 90s Hip Hop production, but also strange outliers like the Avalanches and Cassius-era Zdar and Boom Bass. Like these, the album occasionally feels unfocused, and draws a bit too heavily on mood (yup) where it's musical ideas run thin. Regardless, "Moodymann," like Moodymann himself, is a tightly conceived, totally self-aware product. It may be a fantasy, or a fever-dream, but its rare groove and cranky spirit are Detroit in a bottle.
01. Jimmy D... Nickle
02. Hold It Down
03. Never Quite The Same
04. Desire Featuring – Jose James
05. You're 2 Moody
06. Lyk U Use 2 Featuring [Uncredited] – Andrés
08. I Got Werk
09. Max Julien Jacket
11. U Don't Even Lyk This Song
12. Come 2 Me
13. Ulooklykicecreaminthesummertyme Featuring [Uncredited] – Nikki-O
14. How Do U Get 2 Detroit
16. Yet Unknown
17. Born 2 Die Featuring Lana Del Ray
18. The Most Fearful
19. I Still Don't Know Yo Name
20. Watchin U
22. Got Dem Freaks Wit Me
23. Freeki Muthafucka
24. Sunday Hotel
26. Sloppy Cosmic