‘Idol’ Banter: A close reading of Chikezie Eze

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I’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