Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide:
MLK Fever

Bill O'Reilly, we salute you, now please give us all our frankincense and myrrh back

MISSY ELLIOTT: This Is Not a Test! (Elektra) "I've got the Martin Luther King fever," she declares injudiciously, only soon she's burning up, delivering the old-school album she claimed last time. Beats-first like Run-D.M.C. if Jam Master Jay had been hooked up like Timbaland, it's clinched by Elliott's innocent belief in her mission, which boils down to world conquest. For hooks she calls in more platinum guests than the entire genre supported in 1990 and cites aphorisms that embody history if you know your Salt-N-Pepa and embody fresh if you don't. Like MLK, she preaches--against crack dealers and all their unholy bling-bling. And when she reaches out to her people, she grabs the sisters first. A

KID KOALA: Some of My Best Friends Are DJs (Ninja Tune import) More postmodern comedy from the boulevard of broken beats. Bits include ska with a game leg, scratches with postnasal drip, translations from the marsupial, hi-fi jokes salvaged from hi-fi records, a robot doing the cha-cha-cha, and a drunk trumpet stumbling through the saddest and bravest "Basin Street Blues" ever to make you laugh out loud. B PLUS

LUDACRIS: Chicken-N-Beer (Def Jam South) Bill O'Reilly, we salute you--for most of this record, you've inspired your favorite rapper to make good on his rationalizations. For once he's ribald rather than obscene, subversive rather than gratuitous, especially when he's attacking you and yours on "Blow It Out Your Ass" and "Fuck You" (official titles: "Blow It Out" and "Screwed Up"). "Splash Waterfalls" examines the intimate links between fucking and making love; "Pussy-Poppin' "(official title: "P-Poppin' ") is worthy of Dyke and the Blazers. But on track 13 (superstitious? me?), here comes the X-rated misogyny of "Hoes in My Room," which Ludacris palms off on O'Reilly and I blame on hired dick Snoop Dogg. This disrupts the three-way that follows, after which Luda's losers shoot people for four minutes. Not in real life, of course. B PLUS

MR. LIF: Sleepyheads (Thought Wizard) "Unreleased and hard to find," 1995-2002--and as such, choppy. But also, undie or not, catchy. With his neat timbre and big fat dreads, Lif specializes in black science, but that doesn't mean he rhymes as consistently as, to cite one freestyle target, Jay-Z. "I burn off your flesh like David Koresh" wicked, "I'm getting physical like fitness" not, "Niggers want their frankincense and myrrh back" complex, "These type of facts I don't tend to shun/So I press into the universe to defend the sun" unnatural. As if in compensation, his beats hook and hold--try the banjo and guitar that anchor the old Grand Royal 12-inch. A MINUS

MURS: . . . The End of the Beginning (Definitive Jux) Born 1978, which means L.A.'s Living Legends kingpin released his first single at 15 and is already an old pro on his first major-minor album. Like so many undie hip-hoppers, especially black ones, Murs sells common sense where the big boys deal mythology. He avoids beef until his best friend comes under the gun, has trouble making the rent and trouble holding onto a buck, and comes up with advice for the little brother he knows isn't him: "Keep it gangsta in your CD changer not your residence." A commanding rapper who can separate the simple beats from the dull ones, he peaks when he calls in the auxiliaries. Humpty Hump and Shock G help out on a Risky Business rewrite. And Aesop Rock joins an exasperated praise song for their favorite drug: serotonin uptake inhibitors. A MINUS

THE SHINS: Chutes Too Narrow (Sub Pop) A gifted melodist with an arranger's knack for psychedelicizing simple structures and a folkie's fondness for acoustic strum, James Mercer is a pop formalist like Elephant Six's Robert Schneider and Spoon's Britt Daniel. Although he comes on oversensitive at times, he's no obscurantist and no stupe. When he references Sir Thomas More it's so you remember that utopia seemed an option back "before murder was cool." And yes, when he brings in the steel guitar he's getting ready to leave Albuquerque for Portland--and leave his girl behind. A MINUS

GARY STEWART: Best of the HighTone Years (HighTone) Few artists in any genre have seemed more tortured, dissolute, or full of beans than our era's greatest honky tonker. Already in his thirties when he put out a passel of striking if loosely principled LPs for RCA between 1975 and 1981, he dried out before re-emerging with the '88-'90-'93 albums HighTone's purists expertly reshuffle. Although the self-written songs here are less succinct than "Drinkin' Thing" ("to keep from thinkin' things") or "She's Actin' Single (I'm Drinkin' Doubles)," they do justice to his desperate abandon; delivered in a growlier version of his star-time vibrato, "They ought to make a brand new whiskey/And give it a woman's name/A man needs somethin' to hold on/When her goodbye hits him like a hurricane" captures every aspect of his worldview except the part where he cheats first. Settled in south Florida, Stewart released no more albums until 2003's Live at Billy Bob's Texas, which is currently hard to come by. Last spring his wife died, and last month he shot himself in the neck, so he could die too. At 59, the man who sang "There's nothing cheap about a cheap affair" had been married 43 years. Not only shouldn't he be forgotten, he should be understood. A MINUS

TIMBALAND & MAGOO: Under Construction Part II (Blackground/Universal) Good thing the two rappers have less personality combined than any of their 10-cameo-artists-in-16-tracks, because personality would distract from the beats, which with Timbo means what it says--no mainstream DJ relies so heavily on rhythm instruments per se. His sweetener of choice is chants--Tim, Mag, & Attitude re-singing Peter, Paul & Mary's "Leaving on a Jet Plane," Actual South Asian Person Raje Shwari softening a unison mutter of "That Sh** Ain't Gonna Work"--that cloy only with the standard-issue femme hooks toward the end (sure we miss Aaliyah, but Brandy makes it worse). Magoo's best line: "I don't own a plane or yacht or eat squid." Tim's (to Shwari, not Magoo): "I can't understand a word you're saying." A MINUS

THE WRENS: The Meadowlands (Absolutely Kosher) I keep waiting for the moment when I need to put this away for a while, and it keeps not coming. Instead, four years of takes and tweaks build and cohere--pealing and shifting, wafting and pounding, sinking into babble and soaring into, to choose my very favorite, the bright intro, garbled vocal, and guardedly exultant chorus of "This Boy Is Exhausted." The theme is failure, take it or leave it--not just failure to get rich and famous, which does rankle, but failure to love. But their labors imbue both aging-alt whines with excitement and dignity. Anybody who can create a record like this deserves more than 13 thou a year. And anybody capable of "13 Months in Six Minutes" deserves another shot at a woman too good to take for granted. A

Dud of the Month

LIL JON & THE EAST SIDE BOYZ: Kings of Crunk (TVT) Buried on this cruddy album is a great gimmick half perfected on the climactic "Get Low": oi anthems gone south, crude and compelling unison chants about flexing muscle in a club where another clique does something you don't like, such as breathe. Socially retrograde, but so was tango, and Lil's namesake Elton beat him to the theme by three decades. What's truly retrograde is the rapping--when Too Short takes a turn you'd think Rakim had dropped in from paradise--and the pimp shit eaten by boy-toy-for-hire Oobie and bull mackstress Chyna Whyte. As if in illustration, this version of "Get Low" includes an indistinct verse about stupid bitches poppin' pussy on a pole. It's omitted from both remixes on the new Part II. They knew what to do. Now you do too. C

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Blink-182 (Geffen): Mature enough to understand how vulnerable youth is, but not how grueling maturity is ("Feeling This," "Go").
  • Ying Yang Twins: Me & My Brother (TVT): Way more fun than most bitch-ass motherfuckers ("Calling All Zones," "Hanh!").
  • The Robert Cray Band: Time Will Tell (Sanctuary): "Real" bluesman or not, he writes subtler songs than blues boosters can hear ("Up in the Sky," "Survivor").
  • Jay-Z: The Black Album (Roc-A-Fella): Raps like a legend in his own time--namely, Elvis in Vegas ("99 Problems," "My 1st Song").
  • Pink: Try This (Arista): "It's people like us who make me sick"--well said, and a bad sign ("Humble Neighborhoods," "Save My Life").
  • Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz: Part II (TVT): 'Hood shit slammin', 'ho shit damnin' ("Get Low Remix," "Get Low Merengue Mix").
  • Stew: Something Deeper Than These Changes (Smile): Selling metaphor to Volkswagens galore ("Kingdom of Drink," "Mind the Noose and Fare Thee Well").
  • The Rough Guide to the Music of Haiti (World Music Network import): Hinting pokily at soukous, merengue, and son, a compas guide lifts all too decisively when Boukman comes on the set (Boukman Eksperyans, "Baron"; Coup Clou, "Gacon Bz").
  • The Shins: Oh, Inverted World (Sub Pop): Pretty is hard, but that doesn't make it signify ("Weird Divide," "New Slang").
  • The Postal Service: Give Up (Sub Pop): Sad, smart tune-seeker humanizes glitch tech-pop ("Brand New Colony," "Nothing Better"). [Later: A-]
  • The Darkness: Permission to Land (Atlantic): They mean their hard-rock candy and Mercury posing, but they also mean their readme sheet and their funniest heroin song ever ("Givin' Up," "Friday Night").
  • Living Colour: Collideoscope (Sanctuary): Hard 'n' conscious guitar 'n' bass ("Back in Black," "A ? of When").
  • Dashboard Confessional: A Mark, a Mission, a Brand, a Scar (Vagrant): His band, plus maybe his numbers, hone the jagged edge off his desperation ("Hands Down," "Carry This Picture").

Choice Cuts

  • Clem Snide, "Mike Kalinsky" (A Beautiful EP, SpinArt)
  • Biz Markie, "Tear Shit Up" (Weekend Warrior, Tommy Boy)
  • Stephin Merritt, "Dreams Anymore" (Pieces of April, Nonesuch)
  • Broken Social Scene, "Almost Crimes (Radio Kills Remix)" (You Forgot It in People, Arts & Crafts)
  • Death Cab for Cutie, "We Looked Like Giants" (Transatlanticism, Barsuk)


  • David Banner, Mississippi: The Album (SRC/Universal)
  • David Banner, MTA2: Baptized in Dirty Water (SRC/Universal)
  • Dashboard Confessional, The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most (Vagrant)
  • Eban & Charley (Merge)
  • Eels, Shootenanny! (DreamWorks)
  • Alicia Keys, The Diary of Alicia Keys (J)
  • Lonestar, From There to Here: Greatest Hits (BNA)
  • Stellastarr* (RCA)
  • Joss Stone, The Soul Sessions (S-Curve) [Later: C+]
  • Thursday, War All the Time (Island)

Honorable Mention and Choice Cuts in order of preference.

Village Voice, Jan. 13, 2004

Dec. 30, 2003 Feb. 10, 2004