Dwelling in the Valley of Sin: On Moodymann’s Latest Opus

Jackson Codiga goes in on the Detroit artist's newest album.
By    August 27, 2019

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Jackson Codiga owns an impressive array of ruffled shirts.

Even as the distance between artist and consumer has shrunk more than ever in the social media age, Moodymann has always been smart enough to keep his audience at arm’s length. When the Detroit DJ and producer born Kenny Dixon Jr. released his first album as Moodymann in 1997 Silentintroduction, it arrived with no press or interviews of any kind, making it clear from the beginning that prefers letting his music to speak for itself. It wasn’t until 2007 when Kenny first stepped out from behind his Wizard of Oz curtain and gave an interview on Radio 1, but the few interviews Moodymann has given feel more like performance art aimed to establish Moodymann as an almost mythological figure than an attempt to demystify himself. In his most famous interview, a 2010 Red Bull Music Academy lecture, he insists on having his hair braided by one of several women on stage in Moodymann T-shirts, offering to field questions but not promising any definitive answers. Watching him share his his larger-than-life personality, you almost can’t believe that this is the same person who waited over a decade into his music career to agree to an interview, given how quotable one liners flow out of his mouth like water.

One of Moodymann’s biggest inspirations was the late night Detroit radio DJ “The Electrifying Mojo”, who maintained complete anonymity in order to remain “A voice on the radio, a face in the crowd, a figment of the imagination”. Moodymann similarly wants you to know as little about him as possible, so that when you finally hear him speak on a record, your mind runs wild with the smooth-talking character that he presents himself as. That self-mythologizing, combined with his effortlessly cool voice and his penchant for profane wisdom has made him an incredible popular audio source for producers to sample, as at least 13 other producers have flipped samples from his RMBA lecture into club tracks their own club tracks like “All Night” by Hugo Massien and “What You Do With What You Have” by Blawan. Even if you’ve never listened to a Moodymann track, you’ve probably heard him on someone else’s track, perhaps most famously on Drake’s “Passionfruit” where his signature deep voice can be heard drunkenly telling dancers “hold on, hold on, fuck that… I gotta start this motherfucking record over again”. 

The rollout of Sinner, his 9th full length LP, has been fittingly mysterious for someone who has spent much of their career inspiring rumors and speculation. In 2018, there were reports of a Moodymann album scheduled to come out in June following the release of the single “Got Me Coming Back Right Now”, but that version of the record has yet to see a release. At least a few copies were made, as one was sold on discogs earlier this year for $500, but Moodymann appears to have abandoned that version of the album, indicated by the music video for “I’ll Provide” that displays a garbage can stuffed to the brim with copies of the untitled album.

When Sinner finally arrived in 2019, Moodymann premeried the record by selling physical copies in local record shops and throwing a barbecue where Detroit fans could get the chance to get their hands on the long awaited new Moodymann music weeks before the album’s digital release was even announced. Now finally available for digital download and streaming, the album is much shorter at just 7 tracks compared to 2014’s epic 27-track record Moodymann, but Sinner makes up for its shorter length by delivering some of the best music Moodymann has made in recent memory.

It’s no secret that Moodymann is a Prince obsessive, given that his Detroit home is essentially a religious altar dedicated to the Purple One, but on Sinner Prince’s influence feels stronger than ever, especially on the first two tracks “I’ll Provide” and “I Think Of Saturday”. On “I’ll Provide”, Moodymann presents himself as a womanizing figure, making promise after promise of how he has something to satisfy all the “dirty, nasty needs” of the object of his desire, but there is an unmistakable sense of longing in his voice and the swelling string samples that imply she remains just out of his reach.

With head-knocking percussion and a synth bassline so distorted that it starts to sound like an electric guitar riff as he pushes it further and further into the red, this track wouldn’t sound out of place during peak hours at a Detroit techno club like Marble Bar or TV Lounge, but this party track is tinged with the bitterness of unrequited love. “I Think of Saturday” similarly presents a conflict of emotions in its production and lyrics, with a snapping, propulsive disco drum loop that practically forces your body to move to the beat even as ghostly backing vocals float in the background bathing the track in an ambience of dread.

In his verses, Moodymann is anxiously awaiting the arrival of the weekend to free him from the monotony and loneliness of the weekdays, but when Saturday finally rolls around and the “freaky deaky party” he has been waiting for all week arrives, we aren’t given the release we’ve been promised, instead a dejected Moodymann simply whispers “I don’t know how to feel about it.”

The album’s only single, “Got Me Coming Back Right Now” slows the tempo considerably, with a patiently chugging drum groove that shuffles forward at a hypnotic pace for the track’s entire runtime. Throughout the track, Moodymann expertly adds and removes production details like the sound of passing traffic and additional vocals from Amp Fiddler to create a track that is comfortably repetitive while also constantly evolving to avoid growing stale. “Downtown,” another slower cut on the album, feels like an ode to the kind of Detroit jazz club that Moodymann’s grandfather owns, complete with a walking stand-up bassline and twinkling piano keys that wander for a few minutes over a crowd of chattering crowd noise. Simply tacking on a recording of a crowd cheering onto to a track is a common cheap trick for producers aiming to make a song feel “live”, but instead of using it as pointless window dressing, the laughter and conversation of the crowd becomes another color on the palette Moodymann is painting with, taking it away and bringing it back subtly as the instrumental morphs from a free-wheeling jazz session to a more structured piece of house music.

Perhaps most inventive is “If I Gave You My Love”, in which Moodymann steps away from the microphone and opts instead to use two dueling vocal samples that he pairs with an absolutely infectious bassline and layers of dreamy organs and pianos. Sampling Camille Yarbrough’s “Take Yo’ Praise”, made famous by Fatboy Slim’s dance mega-hit “Praise You”, Moodymann starts the track with the sample material’s most recognizable passage, lulling the listener into a sense of familiarity before pulling the rug out from under them. As soon as the track begins in earnest, the famous vocal is suddenly obscured, as Moodymann begins chopping and interweaving Yarbrough’s voice with another sample of Al Green’s “Simply Beautiful”. The result is intoxicating, and one of the best examples of Moodymann creating something completely new out of borrowed materials. 

It’s been a long quarter century since Moodymann’s releases first started populating record stores around the world, and even though he’s no longer as anonymous as the Electrifying Mojo, his music still garners a cult-like following similar to the Detroit residents who tuned into Mojo’s genre-bending radio shows every night. One of Mojo’s great strengths according to Moodyman was his ability to “make you feel like he was in the room with you”, and albums like Sinner similarly offer you insight into Moodymann’s life and experiences in a way that makes you feel like you’re there with him, blasting Prince deep cuts in his Detroit studio. You can practically smell the dusty stacks of vinyl as you listen to the album, each track so rich with texture and details as to evoke full worlds you can immerse yourself in rather than just songs to dance to. It’s a cliche to say an artist is “one of a kind”, but there are few artists whose style and ethos is as completely singular as Moodymann.

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