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'Idol' Banter: A close reading of Chikezie Eze

ChikezeI’m on a plane right now, headed for the rockin’ madness of Austin, Texas’, annual music, BBQ, booze and schmoozefest, the South by Southwest music festival. (I get to see both R.E.M. and Daryl Hall play club shows tonight!)  My transitory mood is perfect for commenting on last night’s Top 12 debut, because the star on “Idol’s" multi-tiered new stage also has intimate familiarity with L.A.’s airports.

Chikezie’s past as “the guy who tells you to throw away your water” at the security checkpoints of LAX got the “Idol” reveal last night, as did his mama’s funky knowledge of pop and his (so far, undetectable) early schooling in Nigerian juju beats. Photos of the rambunctious soul-man singing in the MTA choir had surfaced on the Web a week ago -- in the instant-messaging age, the show’s behind-the-scenes movies can’t tell us anything new. (Or, in the case of David Hernandez’s coy biopic, with nary a whisper of “gay” or “stripper,” they can evade what we already know.)

This week’s big reveal, happily, was musical. Chikezie pulled off what no other contestant has yet this season: He brought revelation to the “Idol” stage, from the beginning of his turn to the end. Previous star-making turns -– David Archuleta’s much-loved “Imagine,” Brooke White’s Carly Simon-channeling “You’re So Vain,” David Cook’s Daughtry-emulating “Hello” –- offered one strong flavor: youthful tenderness, feminine intimacy, rock grandiosity. Not Chikezie’s. He started at the root of something and followed it through to its highest branches.

That something was rock and roll itself. Covering “She’s a Woman,” a Paul McCartney rave-up from the Beatles’ Little Richard-worshiping early years, Chikezie traced its rhythms from the blues all the way to Gnarls Barkley.

His energetic, utterly controlled rendition related a master narrative in four sections: rock’s birth on the back porch, adolescence in sock hops and on car radios (that octave drop on the line “She don’t give boys the eye,” so reminiscent of the Coasters), virile adulthood in arenas –- gotta love Chikezie stuttering like Roger Daltrey of the Who! -– and, finally, the controlled chaos of black rock today, an underdog force that’s becoming more prominent as the genre cycles back toward its integrated beginnings.

The arrangement wasn’t free of “Idol” references. Chikezie’s knee-slapping beginning as part of an acoustic mini-ensemble followed the blueprint Kat McPhee set in 2006 with her version of  KT Tunstall’s “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree.” But to transition that into a perfectly timed meltdown ending in gospel-punk whoops and shouts? I’d really like to know who guided Chikezie there.

I can name two influences in the air that made such a turn possible on “Idol.” One is Gnarls Barkley, the aforementioned collective led by vocalist/songwriter Cee-Lo Green and producer Danger Mouse, whose success is one of those happy twists that ends up jiggling a genre’s very foundations.

Gnarls Barkley’s music refuses the rules of any one style, throwing in with everything from new wave to hard soul to heavy metal to underground hip-hop. The tracks making the rounds from the band’s upcoming second album promise more definition-defining experiments: the first, “Run,” sounds a lot like one of those field recordings combined with house beats Moby cooked up on his classic album, “Play.” When experiments like this invade the Top 40, riskiness becomes a saleable quality. And thus it can even end up on “Idol.”

The other influence, the seedbed from which Gnarls Barkley sprang, is hip-hop. The genre that’s come to dominate pop over the past two decades is generally poison to “Idol”; Blake Lewis’ brave white-boy beat-boxing is as deep into it as the show has ever gone. But hip-hop has taught every kind of young listener, and plenty of successful artists beyond the rap charts,  to experience pop with new ears.

The irreverent country “hick hop” of Cowboy Troy and his pals in the Muzik Mafia show its mark; so do the mainstream metal hybrids of Linkin Park and Kid Rock. Rising chanteuses like Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen display their love for the genre in their songs. Beyond these obvious connections, hip-hop has challenged all pop lovers to view music’s history as one big crate through which we dig, with no one style or star more “authentic” or even important than another. If rock and roll was a form of representative democracy, hip-hop has taken it grassroots and anarchist.

The old-fashioned pop lovers behind “Idol” have never managed to integrate hip-hop’s signposts into the program’s formula. Rhyming isn’t as familiar a vocal skill, and seems to detract from the standard set of "Idol" skills: a pretty vocal tone and the ability to jump octaves, roll out the melisma and deliver those BIG notes. Blake’s beatboxing worked as a novelty, but that’s an unusual skill. And so far, this season has veered farther away from hip-hop than ever in favor of Top 40 rock.

But there came Chikezie, showing us how to do it without spinning one rap line. Hip-hop defined his joyous leap from style to style and his sly incorporation of vocal “samples” (that Daltrey stutter, for example). Mostly, it was present in his attitude: gleefully witty and self-aware, but impassioned too. He threw down. Maybe it will never happen like this again, but somewhere I know Cee-Lo Green was smiling.

-- Ann Powers
(Photo courtesy of Fox)

Comments () | Archives (6)

Wow, that was way too analytical for me. All I have to say is that, "Chikezie ROCKS." If he keeps pulling off stuff like "She's a Woman," he's got a fan for life.

I agree that this post was way too over-analytical. Whatever the style of music that influences any particular contestant's performance(s), the over-arching concerns here are talent and likability. Chikezie had both in abundance Tuesday night, and if he chooses the right song next week (my choices for him would be I Am The Walrus or Michelle), he will continue to sail upward and, I believe, take over the front runner's spot from David Archuleta.

Incredible performance by Chikezie definitely over-thinking it by the writer.

I remember hearing Paul Simon tell a story about meeting Antonio Carlos Jobim of whom Simon was an extreme fan. He told Jobim that he'd figured out his secret for composing such brilliant music. In all of your compositions you make sure all 12 tones are present. He said Jobim looked at him and said really?.... I had no idea.

Sometimes masterpieces just happen naturally with out a lot of introspective thought.

any idea who played the electric guitar during this song? the guy has curly sort of reddish hair, and he looks familiar to me.

Hi Ann, GREAT article - I am so proud of Chikezie. He's been 1 of my faves from the start and unlike Randy "Who Knew"?...man, I Knew! He's truly dynamic and had fun with the Beatles classic. Thank you for recognizing him. I included his name in the last line of some lyrics I wrote (it actually goes with the American Idol theme - trance mix version) - I'll share them here if you don't mind:

Me and a thousand others just waiting to audition
From the silly to the serious for this singing exhibition
Be the last of top 10 voted off & you can win the title
Fame, fortune & media madness as the next American Idol!

I wore my best – got the rhythm – & every line was rhymin’
But I still failed to impress Randy, Paula & mean ol’ Simon
They hated my falsetto & said I sounded like a wicked witch
Crushing my ambition – There go my dreams of being rich.

Not even a chance to be forgotten like Lindsey Cardinale
So I flipped off the big fat cameraman & told Simon “Go To Hell”!
I’m not trying to be Kelly Clarkson – Now I hear the show is fixed.
But honestly, – did anyone buy the album by Taylor Hicks?

I will go on dreaming & singing proudly into my microphone
And join the crowd that was turned away – at least I’m not alone
I won’t be down about it – It’s not like me to get suicidal
Just ask Chikezie – it ain’t easy, tryin’ to be the American Idol.

(c) 2008 - Robby Reverb

Chikezie is not singing well and is also scary looking. Sorry but i'd be scared if i see a guy like this in a dark alley and i am by myself


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