At the start of Cody ChesnuTT's third full-length album, the eclectic, brightly drawn My Love Divine Degree, is a brief hypnotic opener in which he sings "Anything can happen when the music is good." Singing over a delicately rendered electric piano, ChesnuTT coos the lyrics, as if to his baby. It's a magical soul lullaby, a mantra, conjuring the tone for what is to come. Produced by Anthony "Twilite Tone" Kahn, My Love Divine Degree is certainly a magical album, rife with Day-Glo melodies, kinetic rhythms, and passionate lyrics about love, fidelity, fatherhood, and violence. Coming 15 years after his breakthrough debut, the sprawling, lo-fi The Headphone Masterpiece, and five years after his sophisticated follow-up, Landing on a Hundred, My Love Divine Degree finds ChesnuTT better balancing his early lo-fi vibe with his obvious love for the classic work of artists like Marvin Gaye and Bob Marley. These are buoyant songs, even ragged at times, yet full of deeply philosophical notions and a production style that deftly straddles the line between thoughtfully honed and off the cuff. Cuts like propulsive, Afro-beat and hip-hop-infused "Africa the Future" and the sparkling, early-'70s-style soul jam "She Ran Away" sound like they were constructed around demos, with ChesnuTT's pure vocals and raw-nerve acoustic guitar tracks expertly layered with harmonized vocals, horns, and dabs of synth. This style is brought into full color on the dancey, infectious, Terence Trent D'Arby-esque "Image of Love," in which ChesnuTT's resonant croon and falsetto asides are framed by a swirl of juicy keyboards and a cascade of multi-tracked backing vocals. Equally compelling is the passionate, slow-burn psychedelia of "Bullets in the Street and Blood," featuring Raphael Saadiq. Quavering between ChesnuTT's yearning baritone and Saadiq's breathy croon, the duo decries the emotional weight carried by urban families beset by violence. They sing "Saturday morning, eleven o'clock services, we've seen it too many times before/A mother brokenhearted, a father's head is hanging with children too young to know the score." It's a poignant, cinematic track that displays just how far ChesnuTT is able to expand his organic, prismatic vision. There are synthy, roiling dance numbers like the post-punk-inflected "I Stay Ready"; arty ambient ballads like the poetic, steel drum-accented "Always Sebrena"; and buzzy pop numbers like the '80s-does-'60s Jackson 5-ish "It's in the Love." Elsewhere, the production scrim is less apparent, as on the galloping ska-punk number "Make a Better Man." Backed live in the studio by a nervy guitar, bass, and drums trio, ChesnuTT, his voice a throaty yawp, celebrates the elevating, transforming power of being a good husband and father. He sings "Love a mother and her child and you'll make a better man." Notably, in the years following the release of The Headphone Masterpiece, ChesnuTT did become a father and famously took several years away from performing to focus on his family. It's that kind of rooted sense of purpose and dedication to the process, whether raising a child or recording a pop album, that permeates and elevates all of My Love Divine Degree.
AllMusic Review by Matt Collar