I FELT THE sadness in the song immediately, though after the first two listens, I didn't really get what it was all about. "Pablo Picasso," the second track on Citizen Cope's ambitious new album, The Clarence Greenwood Recordings, is a sympathetic character sketch of a deranged derelict in love with a woman in a mural.
She's the only one alive that knows that I'm not crazy, Cope sings in a laid-back vocal style shaded with James Taylor, Randy Newman and Bill Withers. Over the danceable, reggae-shaded groove, Cope croons the chorus: Mr. Officer / If you come to take her / Then that means one of us / Gon' end up in a stretcher ..."He's protecting what he loves," Cope says of the character. The singer-songwriter-producer is calling from Fort Greene, Brooklyn, his home for the past five years. He's walking the streets. City noises -- sirens, horns, slamming car doors -- fill the background.
"Sometimes, you put yourself in a character within all the context of making music," says the 30-something artist, who talks with a heavy street lilt. "There's an interwoven theme that goes throughout the album -- like, there's a lot of unrest now and a sense of unfinished business but at the same time immense hope."
Cope's music is multi-layered and, at times, deceptively simple. Hip-hop is a definite influence: A thumping, looping beat usually anchors his songs. Rock touches (fuzz tones, blistering guitar solos) flare up here and there. His songwriting and vocals ripple with urban blues, a folkish touch.
"I think music should transcend all boundaries," says the artist, whose stage name is derived from his middle name, Copeland. "There are no limits to music. I don't believe in style over substance."
Well then, how does this cat -- who's on a major label, RCA -- stay afloat in pop, a genre that mostly goes against that belief these days? Cope's music has a lot going for it: It's accessible, hooky and VH1-ready. The musicianship, especially on The Clarence Greenwood Recordings (the title is his real name), is tight and diverse. (Guitar god Carlos Santana lays it down on "Son's Gonna Rise," and masterful bassist Meshell Ndegeocello plays on "Sideways.") The substance is in the lyrics and Cope's slightly off-key singing style.
"The attitude of the music business, in general, is let's get paid for it," Cope says. "It's always been there. But music is high art. When Al Green sang 'Simply Beautiful,' that's music as high art. Music used to be that. It guided the spirit in a positive sense. But music hasn't been able to do that to the masses in a long time."
Born in Memphis, Cope began his music career in D.C. during the early '90s. Then, he was a member of an arty hip-hop crew called Basehead, whose organic, off-kilter aesthetic paved the way for such groups as the Neptunes and OutKast. At the encouragement of go-go legend Chuck Brown, Cope moved to New York to find his own voice and an audience for it. His self-titled debut quietly appeared in 2001 on Dreamworks Records.
Unhappy with nonexistent promotion, Cope left the company and, after working on Santana's 2002 Shaman album, was signed to the guitarist's label, Arista. But after the company's boss, L.A. Reid, was fired, Cope found himself and his new album in limbo. RCA, part of the BMG family that includes Arista, picked up Cope's contract and The Clarence Greenwood Recordings.
"I don't fall into the whole entertainer thing," Cope says. "I wasn't ecstatic to not be dropped. This record is all that matters to me. I'll tell an exec at the biggest record label what's up. The music is all that matters to me."
Cope doesn't seem to be out of touch with what folks want to hear and how they want to hear it. It's something that Gamble and Huff did back in the '70s: Get a nice groove-- something immediate and stimulating --then lay the message, the story right in there.
"People want value and the rush of something that makes you feel something," Cope says. "I want to sell records but maintain my artistic sensibilities. I owe the listener my truth."
Check out Citizen Cope tonight at 7 at the Funk Box, 10 E. Cross St. Tickets are $10 and are available through Ticketmaster at 410-567-SEAT or www.ticket master.com. He also plays at the 9:30 Club, 815 V. St. N.W. in D.C., tomorrow night at 9. Tickets are $10. For more information, visit www.930.com.
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