Album Review: Chester Skate Land by DuctTape Jesus
DuctTape Jesus has been one of my best friends for a long time. I’m admittedly biased in this review because of that, but I became his friend because I was such a fan of his, and being a fan in a local music market means that is a lot of times what just happens. And while DuctTape Jesus makes very good music, the more I followed him I also realized that he has a noteworthy position in the community around music in our city. I was reminded of this when I attended the listening party for his new album, Chester Skate Land, a few weeks before its release party, which takes place this Friday night at RVA Boombox.
When we sat down at the listening party to take in DuctTape Jesus’ new album, the first song came on with some kind of Rage Against the Machine type guitars. There isn’t a lot of guitar like this throughout the album, which is definitely rap, to be clear. Despite the instrumentation, even this song does not feel like rock. But the instrumentation made me reflect a lot on the relationship between rap and rock in our city.
Rap and hip-hop aren’t given the same space and attention as rock in our local arts scene. This has improved a lot over the past seven years or so, but it’s still a problem, especially given that it is an issue that owes a lot to systemic classism and racism. A few rappers like DuctTape Jesus have been positioned to affect this, performing not only on rap shows but on rock shows too. Some do this out of necessity; rap shows were just less attended than rock shows for a long time, so if you wanted a big crowd you had to get on a bill with a few indie bands. This is interesting though considering rap is the most listened-to genre in Richmond, which we know from radio and streaming stats. And this is reflected when you talk to kids at local shows. They love rap as much as rock. So do they just not know where to find it?
DuctTape Jesus getting in front of these audiences over the past few years has helped mix up the fandoms of hip-hop and rock in a way that I feel is important to solving this long-standing equity issue around making our local arts scene accessible to diverse people. And the new album, Chester Skate Land, I think may be an important step to furthering this cross-pollination. Because it’s very, very good. Putting a tool like this in the hands of a person doing such important work could make a big difference.
For a project that is so interesting musically and captivating lyrically, I’m surprised by the realization that the feeling, that emotion that feels like it motivates all of it, seems like it’s the biggest star. This music feels good and fun. And while it is well written and has thoughts in it that you could really chew on, it feels like it’s made with the intention that doesn’t just try to be thought-provoking or technically good — it first wants you to feel good. DuctTape Jesus’ personality kind of reflects this. At the listening party, he’s surrounded by not only friends but some of the more noteworthy people in music in Richmond right now, and he takes time to give everyone their moment, from joking with the rap scene’s honorary poet laureate Rob Gibsun about the challenges of being vegan, saying “You have to eat a lump of clay at night,” to congratulating LIL STIXXX on a recent, truly iconic performance during which she shaved her head on stage, “I think I’m onto something when I get a haircut and no one’s looking!”
Like his easy-going personality, his music doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be good or attempting to force something quality to happen. It feels as naturally fun as talking to him does. It’s effortless. And it’s always been like that. During the listening party, I talked to Brice Maddox of Mid-Atlantic jams, who reminded me that this effortlessness has always been built into DuctTape Jesus’ DNA, though first evident to a lot of us during his radio days. Longtime fans will remember the years when DuctTape Jesus hosted the memorable Secret Bonus Level radio show, during which he’d freestyle on the air over his live house band, often nonstop for the better part of two hours, and it never sounded like he was fumbling or straining himself. Rap just seemed like it naturally came out of his body without him even trying.
And that feeling of having fun without pressure is infectious. It makes you ready to come along for the ride. If you’ve seen him live, you’ll remember how at least twice in his set, during “H.O.Me” and “Lightskin Pink” he provokes the audience to sing along to a hook without even asking them. He literally sings it once and it’s so catchy that five or so people will start singing it too the next time it comes around. There are few people I’ve ever seen perform who can get this out of a room full of strangers. Chester Skate Land definitely keeps this going. I’d say every song has at least two memorable lyrics, things that will stick with you after one listen and stand out as ideas.
Well, truth be told, he does rely to some extent on your existing knowledge of other songs to help this along the way. The reason we sing along to “Lightskin Pink” is that the ending is also the chorus of “Bulletproof” by La Roux, but over a chaotic, borderline noise beat. And it’s so fun to sing along to this song we all know with him in this messy way that totally recontextualizes it. This happens throughout the new album too. He takes music you know and shows it to you in a new way. One song unbelievably turns John Mayer’s “No Such Thing” into a boppy alt-rap hook. He also samples the vocals from Blaque and N*Sync’s “Bring It All To Me” in an expectedly satisfying way, not making it a central part of the song but just a weird sound happening in the background while he raps.
Using our shared nostalgia to relate to us has always been a part of Ducky Wucky’s music. (I call him Ducky Wucky; I can’t imagine he likes it though.) His lyrics are full of references to things we remember from pop culture as kids: the Disney channel, Mandy Moore, and McAuley Culkin are referenced in the new album. He also makes these references to childhood personal by describing more universal experiences like having a favorite tree and wanting to meet up there and throwing paper balls at a ceiling fan.
In fact, I’d say offering moments that ground us in reality amidst vivid emotional imagery is one of his trademarks. When he mentions a ketchup stain on his shirt, somehow you end up thinking about when that happened to you. Or when he talks about confetti in his hair, that’s a specific thing you can remember seeing happen to someone else at one moment. And the kinds of moments he uses to ground us in reality speak to the authenticity of the feelings he weaves into these stories. The less money you have, the bigger deal it is if ketchup won’t come out of your shirt, and confetti is an inexpensive thing to bring to a party but it makes an occasion feel more special. But Ducky intersperses those with relatable, tough feelings about being in love with someone who doesn’t text you, showing up to profess love on a front stoop. Yeah, the theme of romance is in there heavily, and it’s a subject he approaches with an innocence that endears you to him.
But did I call his songs stories? That probably isn’t the best way to explain them. But they do feel like they’re a loose narrative as we’re hearing about events in his life. He told us on his first album about his cousin who passed away after the last time DuctTape Jesus saw him and “sold him something.” But when he was recording that album, during the era of this radio show, I remember fellow radio personality Paul Ivey describing his lyrics as “nonsense.” And this wasn’t meant in a derogatory way. There are a lot of nonsequiturs. And while that’s kind of just a mechanism of the genre of rap, Ducky juxtaposes things in a way that feels unique to him. He includes scenes from TV shows, places that feel like liminal spaces — the mundane, the hyperbolic and fun stuff, and the amorous and nostalgic — alongside rap lyrics that are kind of the brand of braggadocio in a way that’s lighthearted and enjoyable.
There is also a heavy emphasis on the music, and his lyrics serve this well. We’ve covered how full of hooks his songs are, but the words themselves even at times abandon substance altogether just to help serve the vibe of the beats. The one time my mom watched DuctTape Jesus perform, she provided me a review I’ll never forget, “I couldn’t understand the words all the time, but there was one part where he just said ‘Shit. Damn. Shit. Damn.'” My mom would probably not love that this is the first time I’ve quoted her directly in my writing and I had her repeating this profanity, but I have learned to appreciate how this really simple and crude seeming kind of lyrical approach in the right place is really rewarding. One song of Chester Skate Land, similarly, contains exactly two words repeated over and over. The beats in this track are so good that this is really all it needs, and the more Ducky repeats these two words the more they ring true.
I guess we really do have to get into what the beats actually sound like. It is challenging to describe music in text, obviously. You really have to hear it. But it’s impossible not to attempt to comment on the quality of this. Rap doesn’t generally subscribe to a system of rigorous subgenre definition in the same way that rock does, so it feels somewhat antithetical to the tradition to assign these kinds of labels to it, but Chester Skate Land rides that sweet spot between alternative rap, trap, and boom bap that feels accessible, palatable, and relatable without being firmly tied to any one terminology. The overall mood is not stylistically too far from any other hip-hop you’d have trouble putting in one of those boxes, though it also includes a lot of nice experimental touches. We hear again the reversed samples of speech and singing that have kind of become a signature of DuctTape Jesus. It’s been an element in his music for a while, but it still feels fresh. One song toward the end also has chopped-up sound effects of an audience cheering used in a way that I’ve honestly never heard before. These feel smart but not forced or in an effort to manufacture something smart. They just feel like hearing something new that’s good.
Really, it’s hard to find a lot of words to describe the sound of the album other than good. The drums sound really good. The beats and the way and the way the samples are woven together are just so good. It’s immediate and boppy. You respond to it. When we walked into the listening party, we all sat in chairs but people naturally felt compelled to get up and dance when the music dropped.
The album is really well-paced, everything flows well, and the vibe is consistent across all the tracks. When it was over, fellow rapper Sap Evans demanded we play the whole thing again from the top. The rest of the room immediately agreed. This is, I know, par for the course with a listening party, but it didn’t feel like we were doing it because it was what was expected. I think we all really wanted to hear it again. I’m really looking forward to hearing it again today on its release day. I’ve been to most of DuctTape Jesus’ shows since the listening party just to get my ears back on these songs again. And I know if you come out to RVA Boombox for the release party on Friday, you won’t regret it.
Chester Skate Land is out everywhere on streaming platforms, including Bandcamp and Spotify. You can catch DuctTape Jesus in concert next on Friday, November 3rd at RVA Boombox for the Vacation Bible School show presented by Public Welfare where he’ll perform alongside LIL STIXXX, Sap Evans, Boobie Holiday, and DJ Allnaturel. Tickets are $10 and you can find more information by clicking this link, or looking at the show poster flyer below.