Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide:
Escape Claus

Given hip hop's belief in Santa Claus, a/k/a the Christmas market, figure the many rap records below (don't stop till you get to Duds, now) constitute a first installment. Haven't even gotten some yet. People who believe in Santa Claus often think it's more blessed to receive than give.

BADLY DRAWN BOY: Have You Fed the Fish? (Artist Direct) Damon Gough was never the sad sack speedsters mistook him for, but who would have pegged him as a song-and-dance man--metaphorically, of course, which doesn't mean somebody shouldn't send him tap shoes? "How can I give you the answers you need/When all I possess is a melody?" he implores, and for once said melody is the answer. It's the rare guitar geek who acts like strings and horns are where he's always belonged rather than where he hopes he'll fit in. The rare bedroom genius who's cheered by success, too. A MINUS

BUCK 65: Square (WEA import) Where DJ Shadow decorates beats with words, Buck 65 underpins words with beats. That's why "the echoing voice of the old ones" includes substantial passages by Lord Buckley, Bill Cosby, Alfred Hitchcock, and William Burroughs. The music flows in its quietly sampled way, as it had better on CDs the artist refuses to divide into song-length tracks, but Richard Terfry's alt-rap wouldn't have much point if he wasn't at least as wise as, say, his compatriot Joni Mitchell--the young one, I mean. No question he's a nicer person. So here's predicting he'll be able to continue "The girls are desperate/But the boys are even hornier/The rose is sweet/But the stem is even thornier" into the productive adult life on which he's embarked. And that a decade from now he'll rewrite "Food" to accommodate the Malaysian, Uzbek, Senegalese, and haute French cuisines. A MINUS

CASH MONEY RECORDS: PLATINUM HITS (Cash Money/Universal) The label's never had a platinum single, or all that many platinum albums--maybe half a dozen, plus a few gold. But it's underwritten many SUVs worth of platinum jewelry, and while the albums themselves sink into thug tedium, these good-humored paeans to material gratification are so crass and crude they're spiritually uplifting. Equal parts tweedly hooks, drumbeats for Conlon Nancarrow, boasts you could cut with a butter knife, and yelling. "Bling, Bling" cheek by high-riding buttock with "Back That Azz Up." Be thankful the exigencies of airplay keep the "I like to fuck 'em in the ass while he beat up the pussy" to a minimum. A MINUS

MS. JADE: Girl Interrupted (Beat Club/Interscope) Decent rapper turns bling bling into ching ching until it stops making a noise, then gets sisterly on your ass, which is an improvement. Street, gangsta, 2-1-5, blah blah blah, she claims "Different," but the differentest thing about her is she's Timbaland's front of the year. With Missy, commercial priorities aren't all Timbo keeps straight. Here he twists and sprawls, coaxing wisdom from Nelly Furtado and Nate Dogg, rapping death metal, layering like Tunisian pastry, and extracting a beat from a Charli Baltimore boy toy. Hey you, blow your whistle. See, doesn't work when I do it. B PLUS

THE MUSIC IN MY HEAD 2 (Stern's Africa) Lying in a good cause as usual, Mark Hudson a/k/a Litch claims that, having thought he'd "said it on African music," he's topped himself. The trick, he explains, is a follow-up that honors "the beauty, the humanity, the essential goodness of African music." Of course, what made the original so intense was the chaos, the contingency, the essential madness of Senegalese music, and when that kind of construction coheres, it's untoppable. Venturing over into Mali and Guinea and back before mbalax, this applies standard-grade connoisseurship to 1975-1985 Afropop. It's more soulful, a good deal simpler, and truer to the historical West Africa than its brilliantly tendentious predecessor. I hope it spins off a follow-up in its turn. A MINUS

YOUSSOU N'DOUR & LE SUPER ETOILE: Rewmi (Jololi import) For the Senegalese market and what it is: six new songs straightfowardly presented, hyperactive tamas leading stripped band, with occasional keyb washes and a single femme chorus discernible. No cameos, concepts, or fancy solos. The songs dim as they go on--only the first two seem certain to surface in export versions. But every one has its own special shift or lift. And the finale swoops upward again. A MINUS

NORTHERN STATE: Dying in Stereo (Northern State) The whitegirl hip hop trio's second Web-and-gig EP in under a year was diverted from indie retail by label-deal dreams; three of its eight tracks remake songs that surfaced on the four-track collector's item Hip Hop You've Never Heard, which I prefer for no better reason than that I heard it first. So don't worry--you won't regret this flyer even if it's subsumed by that label deal. Hesta Prynne is angular, self-made, just-don't-give-a-fuck yet caring too; Guinea Love's Long Island grit has earth-mother in it; DJ Sprout projects rounded, earnest, well-bred. The three form an essential unity--call it "The Trinity," since they do. And though their beats beat Stetsasonic's, their commitment to their well-bred side will dog them for as long as they strive. "Don't blame me 'cause I voted for Gore" is a great line because it's straight in the sense of candid and a revealing one because it's straight in the sense of normal. I bet Hesta actually did work for the president's wife--licking envelopes, probably. How many rappers can make that claim? And how many rockers? A

THE ROOTS: Phrenology (MCA) The Bad Brains homage "!!!" ends in the nick of 25 seconds, "Quills" is sadistic in an arty way--two more sinful episodes in a cheating-song cycle where new blood Ben Kenney's guitar takes hip hop from behind and calls the baby rock and roll. This isn't some critical metaphor. It's the plot of the tale of betrayal and recompense told by 2002's freshest roots rock track and jammingest avant rap track--the album's centerpiece, "The Seed (2.0)." The backstory, if there is one, you can get from the gossip industry. I'll just note that on this record Kamal's keyb hooks could pass for piano. And believe that after years of racial mythology, they've found it in their talent to put black music's long tradition of tune and structure into practice. A MINUS

THE STREETS: Original Pirate Material (Vice) This succès d'estime--"cult classic, not bestseller," he says it himself--ventures closer than you'd hope to the ignoramus whine that hip hop isn't music. More even than in our underground, it settles for rhymes-with-accompaniment. In England, where the garage Mike Skinner claims to "push forward" is techno's last big thing, he may be the answer to "Who Got the Funk?" By the parochial standards of the Neptunes and Timbaland, however, his beats perk up mostly when he skanks them. As for his realism, I took it more seriously once he claimed he'd be in museums 500 years from now. All I know about his education is that he name-checks Carl Jung, but the streets he represents are a literary creation. Sometimes they rock, definitely. But sometimes words fail him. There's plenty of detail, and feeling too--not just anger, tenderness. By my parochial standards, however, his one cult classic thus far is "Too Late," where he loses the girl because he doesn't know how to keep an appointment. A MINUS

TINARIWEN: The Radio Tisdas Sessions (World Village) Sahel nomads turned Qadaffi exploitees turned Bamako unemployeds, they worked out their revamped Tuareg folk music in acoustic bands of 30 or so and pared down as they electrified. In the Mali context they are or were warriors and rebels, literally. But at this distance they give off the same sere calm I associate with Ali Farka Toure and Afel Bocoum, only trancier--in the desert, folks really know how to trance. At this distance, they're touched by New Age tourism. But they're no less hypnotic for that. B PLUS

WIDE RIGHT (Wide Right) "Rock and Roll fueled by cheap beer and Gibson guitars"--and a mother of two born "Rust Belt Girl." On this Web-and-gig EP, Leah Archibald claims not indie Buffalo music maker Ani DiFranco but working-class Buffalo actor-musician-painter-architect-handyman-j.d. "Vincent Gallo." She hopes she doesn't get stuck in her hometown like "Pete Best." And nevertheless produces a song about the road back, a joyous thing even when she stops in Binghamton so the kids can pee. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

COMMON: Electric Circus (MCA) Sometimes brave men march off into the swamp and get seriously lost, so let's hope Captain ?uestlove and his s?uad remembered the DEET. Vocal flow's not the problem, and set to the beat-smart fusion lite of Like Water for Chocolate, the humanity of the well-meaning poetry would probably outweigh all the forced similes and sentimental lapses. Outfitted in this music, however, Common's pretensions stand up and do jumping jacks. There are pleasurable rhythm elements, and under the circumstances, the Stereolab cameo is kind of an up. But those are parts. The whole is keybs like golden nacho goo, guitar sticking out like chips, please-not-more codas, and everywhere the angelic twaddle of singing swingles doo-doo. B

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Youssou Ndour & le Super Etoile, Ba Tay (Jololi import): 2000's not quite compelling Senegal-only, its lead cuts ready to be toned up for the nice people at Nonesuch ("Bird," "Ba Tay")
  • Skeleton Key, Obtanium (Ipecac): get off on running a scrap-metal bottleneck right across a song's clavicle ("Sawdust," "Kerosene")
  • Kelly Osbourne, Shut Up (Epic): the finest anger money can buy ("Shut Up," "Come Dig Me Out")
  • Dan Melchior's Broke Revue, Bitterness, Spite, Rage, and Scorn (In the Red): blues riffs (and tempos) as punk noise ("You're My Wife," "Me and J.G. Ballard")
  • Gravediggaz, Nightmare in A-Minor (Empire Musicwerks): their horror movie turned real-life doomshow, and when they hit a vein they sound it ("False Things Must Perish," "Burn Baby Burn")
  • GZA/Genius, Legend of the Liquid Sword (MCA): "Record execs wanna push the album way back?/And hold back my advance? They didn't pay that" ("Rough Cut," "Knock, Knock")
  • About a Boy: Original Soundtrack by Badly Drawn Boy (XL/Artist Direct): creams ebullient tune and irrelevant song onto Nick and Hugh's well-groomed movie ("A Peak You Reach," "File Me Away")
  • Imperial Teen, Live at Maxwell's (DCN): slightly sparer, slightly rougher fan/band faves ("The Beginning," "You're One")
  • Missy Elliott, Under Construction (Elektra): hardcore to the booty, slimfast to the brain ("Work It," "Bring the Pain")
  • Large Professor, 1st Class (Matador): knows where to start when the beats commence ("Born to Ball," "The Man")
  • Blazin' Hip Hop & R&B (Columbia): from good to middling, corporate beats at their most salable (Maxwell, "This Woman's Work"; Jagged Edge, "Where the Party At")
  • 8 Mile (Shady/Interscope): Obie Trice, who doesn't make the movie, is all over the soundtrack album--unlike Rabbit's freestyles, which make the movie (Eminem, "Rabbit Run," "Lose Yourself")
  • Jurassic 5, Power in Numbers (Interscope): a "Mr. Bass Man" cover would greatly enhance their artistic profile ("One of Them," "Remember His Name")
  • Yoko Ono, Blueprint for a Sunrise (Capitol): avant-minimalist and pop-simplistic, Japanese and English, old and new--all is one ("I'm Not Getting Enough," "Rise II")
  • Ani DiFranco, So Much Shouting/So Much Laughter (Righteous Babe): live revisions for her fan base, which still has a live one ("Comes a Time," "Whathowwhenwhere")
  • Capital D & the Molemen, Writer's Block (The Movie) (All Natural): ecumenical morality tales from hip hop imam ("Mrs. Manley," "Currency Exchange")

Choice Cuts:

  • Tweet, "Oops (Oh My)" (Southern Hummingbird, The Goldmind, Inc./Elektra)
  • Jimmy Scott, "Jealous Guy" (Chelsea Walls: Original Music by Jeff Tweedy, Rykodisc)
  • Clipse, "Young Boy" (Lord Willin', Star Trak)
  • Syl & Jimmy Johnson, "Oprah" (Two Johnsons Are Better Than One, Evidence)


  • Lauryn Hill, MTV Unplugged 2.0 (Columbia) [Later: D-]
  • Talib Kweli, Quality (Rawkus)
  • Joni Mitchell, Travelogue (Nonesuch)
  • Nelly, Nellyville (Universal)
  • Off the Hook (Columbia)
  • Slum Village, Trinity (Past, Present and Future) (Capitol/Barak)
  • Swizz Beatz, Swizz Beatz Presents G.H.E.T.T.O. Stories (DreamWorks)

Village Voice, Jan. 21, 2003

Dec. 31, 2002 Feb. 11, 2003