Life is fairly straightforward for a classically-trained piano virtuoso: a slow-burning long player here, a leftfield soundtrack there. Just ask Yann Tiersen or Dustin O’Halloran.
The case of Gonzales – or Jason Charles Beck to his pals – is a touch more involved. Composer, arranger and author. Jazz, rock and rap musician. Running mate of fellow Canadians Peaches, Mocky and Feist; a prominent figure on the latter’s breakthrough LPs Let It Die and The Reminder.
The case of Chilly Gonzales is curiouser still: a Jewish supervillain MC, seemingly, whose quest for domination saw the erstwhile Jason decamped to Berlin and then Paris. It is under this guise that the latest, slightly schizophrenic Gonzales effort declares war on its audience.
The Unspeakable Chilly Gonzales belatedly does the expected unexpected, Gonzales finally playing out an unholy marriage of his dichotomous personalities – one half classical pianist, one half rapper – in the world’s first all-orchestral rap album. Love it or hate it, as the man himself often asserts, this is an LP that will grab you by the figurative lapels.
Opener Supervillain Music sets the scene as dramatic, ominous, orchestral flourishes – with production values akin to a Hollywood blockbuster – pave the way for the eponymous character’s entrance: “Do you like rap? / Well it so happens I’m so ballin’ / What I mean is between you and me / There’s a gap, don’t fall in.” It’s entirely inviting, lyrically and musically.
What follows is a nine-track paradox of a neurotic Braggadocio’s making: admittances come as thick and fast as the boasts; maps to greatness are charted in the midst of painful confessions. As layered, melodious and luxurious as the music becomes – and it does, often extremely impressively – the duplicitous Chilly remains in the spotlight above all else.
Self Portrait is the manifestation of such an approach, skipping as it does from brash satisfaction (“Listen, it’s entertainment / But if you listen / the genius is in the arrangements”) to self-effacing humour (“I see the truth in Eric Cartman / and Salvador Dali and Dolly Parton / and even Chris Martin / when I dance to Viva La Vida alone in my apartment”) without missing a beat; its classical canvas as rich as one could hope for.
Strangely enough, such sharp witticisms briefly lose their edge as instruments build up a head of steam: in bongo-slapping, string-stabbing Party In My Mind, repetitive rhymes fall ever so short of their early high watermark.
It is the unending cynicism, however, that casts the most interesting shade over the album. He’s a villainous alter-ego, sure, but what is to be made of the frequent straight-faced, deadpan declarations? When Gonzales repeats “The great minds of this lifetime / I believe the next Einstein will write rhymes,” one suspects he’s being ironic… but is he? Or is he serious? It’s an ambiguity sure to stimulate some but frustrate others; the latter perturbed as to the sincerity – or lack thereof – of The Unspeakable Chilly Gonzales.
Beans exhibits the same traits – being either a send up of or a pseudo homage to the rap game’s materialism – before self-aware meta-song Who Wants To Hear This? articulates Gonzales’ neuroses and the listener’s reservations with aplomb: “Just a little bit too clever / too smug too try-hard / too much effort / Is it worth a listen or worth missing? / Would you call this the work of a musician?”
It’s a shrewd move, and one that brings the album about-face as attendant ears prick up for closing confessional Shut Up And Play The Piano – “Hello microphone, it’s me, Jason / I know you prefer me on the piano / so be patient” – in which the pay-off is revealed: if Chilly is the villain, Gonzales is the hero, and his genius isn’t only in the arrangements. The proof is in this flawed-yet-fascinating high-density killer of an album.