Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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This was originally published as exclusive content, in Robert Christgau's And It Don't Stop newsletter. You can have Christgau's posts delivered to your mailbox if you subscribe.

Consumer Guide: February, 2021

Hip-hop from an anxiety-ridden melodicist, an FDNY veteran, and an unpredictable eccentric. Plus bellowing punk protest, durable jangle-pop, solo acoustic road tales, and Gaga Gaga Gaga.

The Beths: Jump Rope Gazers (Carpark) Inflecting her useful tunes, tender heart, and uncertain hopes for the future with a tart, sometimes breathy incipient twang, Elizabeth Stokes and her three male bandmates add a freshness to their all too durable New Zealand jangle-pop. Love and friendship are sometimes hard to distinguish in Stoke's musical world, so to keep things simple and for that matter durable let's hope she and the lead guitarist who's also her boyfriend have found a tie that binds for a while at least. B PLUS

Jay Electronica: A Written Testimony (Rocnation) He's good and then some, absolutely, but after all these years he has more to say about the prophet, who is himself, than to his flock, whoever that may be, and though the label owner's cameos are why we're here, respect to Farrakhan for his class-conscious rap ("Ezekiel's Wheel," "Ghost of Soulja Slim") ***

Justin Farren: Pretty Free (Bad Service Badger) The fourth album by a solo-acoustic Sacramento road dog whose first three are almost as precise and articulate but less compelling and detailed begins with a startled compare-and-contrast glance at his old Costco membership card and dims only occasionally thereafter. Most of his songs register as autobiographical, reflecting on elders gone, misadventures relived, and the married-with-children life; all are performed with palpable care and quiet pizzazz. Now 38, Farren will never be famous. But he's clearly earned the regional fanbase he continues to service in the ancient yellow truck we meet in "Two Wheel Drive and Japanese," which takes place when he was 16 and stupid. A MINUS

Idles: Ultra Mono: Momentary Acceptance of the Self (Partisan) Brits-to-the-core faced with a been-there-done-that backlash that's even more tedious from the critical solons of that existentially threatened isle than from our own, the rare band that's made a go of bellowing punk protest at this godforsaken juncture could plausibly be accused of defensive overstatement here and there. But as a creaky old lefty I say bring it on, and am happy to attest that their new songs gain allure till they flower into the superb "Kill Them With Kindness"-"Model Village"-"Ne Touche Pas Moi"-"Carcinogenic" midsection. Inspirational Verse: "You only die once/You'll never come back/You're gone when you're gone/So love what you can." Which is because: "Getting minimum wage while your boss takes a raise/As he lies through his brand new teeth is/Carcinogenic." A MINUS

Juice Wrld: Legends Never Die (A Grade/Interscope) "I can't breathe I'm waiting for the exhale": well before George Floyd turned Eric Garner's last words into a metonym for racism, this 21-year-old Chicago rapper who apparently OD'd swallowing evidence as cops breached his private jet was uttering them with a difference. Beset by chokeholds, Floyd and Garner were deprived of oxygen; beset by anxiety, Jarad Higgins was deprived of ease. However effortless his tuneful rivulets of pitch-corrected singsong, however proud his talent and earned his success, he was frightened and insecure underneath. This kind of torment always has a biochemical component and afflicts humans of every background. But how can it not be exacerbated by systemic racism? Many rappers admit that it afflicts them to one extent or other. But Juice Wrld put it front and center, and for me that renders his melodies more likable and his art uncommonly affecting--I feel for this drug abuser and enjoy his music more as a result. Materially, he did quite well for himself during his brief lifetime. But he was honest and decent enough to deserve better. A MINUS

Ka: Descendants of Cain (Iron Works) Street criminal turned 20-year FDNY veteran and now captain Kaseem Ryan is also a rapper who doesn't declaim or quick-lip and doesn't mumble either. He just talks, in cadenced rhymes for sure but that's not the point--the point is what he has to say on a catalog comprising five albums plus extras going back to 2008. Always a matter-of-fact realist--"I live this vivid shit, I ain't that creative"--he's never been averse to recollection or commentary, and this album assumes a didactic stance he puts across. "I still feel hate every now and then," he begins by reporting; "My heroes sold heroin," he soon recalls. But his basic aim here is to report on not preach about the devastation the street life leaves in its economically understandable, politically defensible, humanly unjustifiable wake--reporting that leaves room to articulate emotional alternatives, so that "Had to use your fists to change your fiscal" evolves into "Times the inner me cry from the imagery." Yes he can translate his two-sided experience into a political goal as utopian as it is limited: "Some equality, none in poverty, I'll be joyous then." But by closing with "I Love (Mimi, Moms, Kevs)" (wife, mother, departed homeboy) he makes clear that human connections are a precondition of whatever joy comes his way. A MINUS

Lady Gaga: Artpop (Streamline/Interscope) "My artpop could mean anything," the title song boasts proudly. So as befits the dilemma our self-made superceleb's hype overkill and musical overproduction have gotten her into, Gaga's fourth album in five years was both grossly grotesque, as in "Swine"'s "You're just a pig inside a human body," and aptly cartoonish, long on bright, brash, overstated outlines. In "We could, we could belong together," the "we" is in fact art and pop. But this being Lady Gaga it's also S-E-X. It's "Venus" connecting rocket ships to both oysters and Uranus. It's "GUY" standing for Girl Under You. It's "Sexxx Dreams"'s sex dreams. It's songs and conceits that pop all over the place. A

Lady Gaga: Joanne (Deluxe Edition) (Streamline/Interscope) It's definitely not the best way to prove you're a Real Girl to reserve the three Realest songs on the album for fans so besotted they'll pay extra for them ("Grigio Girls," "Just Another Day," "Angel Down [Work Tape]") *

Lady Gaga: Chromatica (Interscope) Lop off the first four tracks and you'll end up with a pretty good album about a talented singer, songwriter, and actress who once upon a time was an elaborate cartoon ("Babylon," "Free Woman," "Fun Tonight") **

Mukdad Rothenberg Lankow: In the Wake of Memories (Clermont Music) When the second sentence of the one-sheet reads "After the fourth time he was tortured Wassim Mukdad realized he had to leave Syria," one does read on. But I'd only dug out the bio because I'd already been surprised to find myself replaying this quiet hour of oud-clarinet-percussion and then replaying it again. Combat-zone doctor Wassim Mukdad and combat-zone nurse Volker Lankow met American scholar David Rothenberg in Berlin, where he was studying musicians who'd set themselves to accompanying the birds in a municipal park. It was Rothenberg who got the three of them into the studio where these 11 tracks were improvised. Mukdad usually takes the nominal lead; Rothenberg gets equal time, often on bass clarinet; Lankow articulates a calm, changeable groove on frame drum, tabla, etc. No, they don't sound anything like birds. They sound like human beings with more reasons to value peace than most of us. A MINUS

Naeem: Startisha (37d03d) In which the former Spank Rock, the beatmastering Baltimore rap eccentric who followed 2006's subculturally renowned YoYoYoYoYoYo with 2011's obscurely self-released Everything Is Boring and Everyone Is a Fucking Liar, enlists such mismatched fans as Bon Iver and Swamp Dogg on an engaging and unpredictable album that either reveals him as he truly is or unpacks his selves as they truly are. Slipping readily from the omnivorous orgiastics of "Woo Woo Woo" to the stricken romanticism of "Us," he's nowhere more relatable than on a title song that recalls and worries about a girlchild whose sexuality was so innate it put her in who knows what danger. Is this girlchild Naeem, somebody like him, or someone he knew? No idea. A MINUS

New Orleans Mambo: Cuba to Nola (Putumayo) As my wife has noticed at breakfast, New Orleans rock and rollers Dr. John and the Neville Brothers elevate the mood without picking up the tempo every time "Mos' Scocious" and "Yellow Moon" surface at tracks two and eight. But Putumayo's virtual-tourist-coddling trick of alternating Crescent City trad with locals who cultivate the kind of Latin grooves that helped germinate the second-line bounce to begin with is both educational and entertaining. Not only does it generate a danceable flow, it finds a use for long-running also-rans like Zazou City and the Iguanas. Handsomely documented and packaged, too. A MINUS

Sleaford Mods: Spare Ribs (Rough Trade) Spare ribs as in women, who aren't the only thing here to soften Jason Williamson's unrelenting leftism without compromising it but are definitely the juiciest, particularly the duo's great gift to the world Billy Nomates ("Mork n Mindy," "Spare Ribs") ***

Lil Uzi Vert: Eternal Atake (Generation Now/Atlantic) "I ain't fucked a bitch so long I'd do it in a Honda Accord," the opener claims, but alas, along comes voting-age pussy, bedecked of course with auto-tuneful mating and consumption rhymes suitable to a rapper of Uzi's stature ("That Way," "Lo Mein," "Baby Pluto") **

And It Don't Stop, Feb. 10, 2021

Jan. 13, 2021 Mar. 10, 2021