Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Hip hop is rich and unexpected enough these days to shore up a curmudgeon's faith in musical youth. Not that he sees any percentage in following the lead of a hip hop community that, insofar as it exists at all, makes no allowances for curmudegons. Queen Latifah, old fart--yeah sure.

BLACK STAR: Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star (Rawkus) As "underground" freestylers, they like their beats stark, claiming old school and achieving arty like so many neoclassicists before them. Even saluting Slick Rick (in a tale where the bad kid jacks beats instead of grandmas) or the Funky Four Plus One (and neoclassicist break dancers), they're never "raw," no matter what they think. On the contrary, they're cooked as hell. Making hard lyrical as they drop "black like the perception of who on welfare" and "you must be history because you keep repeating yourself," they devise a hip hop imaginary where hater players lose their girls-not-bitches to MCs so disinterested they give 'em right back. The rhymes are the selling point. But the subculture that cares most about these words is what you'll come back to. A MINUS

CANIBUS: Can-I-Bus (Universal) So what exactly is supposed to be wrong here? His bragging, tsk-tsk? His retrograde reliance on "bitch" and such? His fealty to the Betrayer of Lauryn Hill? His voice, all gritty and ugly and clear and New York? His "flow," Lord help us? He doesn't flow, he overflows, spouting extra verbiage when any normal logorrheic would shut the eff up, and that form-fucking illusion of distended stanza is his flow. Unfettered after the manner of Kool Moe Dee, uncanny after the manner of Fox Mulder, and uproarious either way, he makes sure his gangsta tropes stay that way because he believes language supercedes reality. And all this I pinned down after being sucked in by the chamber orchestra, Hawaiian guitar, mixed-down Wagner, Claudine Longet parody, Wonder Mike parody, and Roxanne Shanté sample. You'll gasp. You'll chortle. You'll wonder what exactly is supposed to be wrong here. A

GEORGE CLINTON & THE P-FUNK ALL STARS: Dope Dogs (Dogone) The Goduncle hasn't made a bad record since the band broke up or an exciting one since Computer Games. Until now. Don't try this at home, kids, but the secret is that instead of adapting to youthcult fashion, a trick he manages like no other fiftysomething can, he indulges an idee fixe. For years he's been fascinated by the involvement of Old Mac Uncle's C.I.A. ("I-O") in contraband--meaning weapons, ultimately, but more enjoyable threats to human life first. So he starts by assuming dogs sniff dope because they gotta have it and takes off. Just about every song has both dogs and dope in it, with variations as comical as Mr. Wiggles the Worm and considerably darker. The funk is long on guitar and capable of anything. Is that bebop? You know, behind the elementary-school rappers and the pill-popping poodle? A

GOODIE MOB: Still Standing (LaFace) Their drawls as thick as their funk, they create a Dirty South at once more impenetrable and more inviting than Eightball's or Master P's--in feeling, one of hip hop's most neighborly spaces. Musically and verbally, they're too textural, but no one else cultivates such territory with such care, and their Allmans homage/rip is almost as inspirational as this preachment: "I'm sick of lyin'/I'm sick of glorifyin' dyin'/I'm sick of not tryin'." B PLUS [Later]

TED HAWKINS: Suffer No More: The Ted Hawkins Story (Rhino) Maybe the radical alarm and homely detail of "Sorry You're Sick" are less unguarded than they seem--this guy made his living disarming passers-by. Even so, Hawkins's two Rounder releases achieve an aesthetic of the natural--songs about combs, about doing the dishes, about vagrant desire. The U.K.-only late-'80s selections are pedestrian by comparison--beautifully sung, but incompletely imagined and indifferently arranged. Because compiler Gary Stewart thinks like a collector and adores Hawkins, a summing-up that might have established an American original is only a misleading introduction--to an American original. B PLUS

JOHN LEE HOOKER: The Best of Friends (Pointblank) With the millennium approaching as speedily as Hook's 140th birthday, his brain trust devises an easy yet effective celebration, mining the interchangeable output of his hundred-thirties for standout cameos and adding yet more special guests. And though he was warned not to overtax himself with these, you'd never know it from the Claptonized "Boogie Chillen" that sets him in his groove. Carlos Santana, Ry Cooder, Jimmie Vaughan, Los Lobos, and Bonnie Raitt also get him hard. A MINUS

KATE & ANNA MCGARRIGLE: The McGarrigle Hour (Hannibal) The secret message of this family get-together, which literalizes the well-tended domesticity underlying every record they've made, is that self-expression is for kids. Let Rufus and Martha confess and emote, and sure, jolly Uncle Chaim into going public with that lonely tune of his, it's so modest it'll fit right in. Because what the grownups in charge are after is songs per se, songs of every provenance and orientation. Berlin and Porter and Foster at their most quiet and obscure, folk songs from hither and yon, that hootenanny refrain they were once so sick of, good old "Young Love." Loudon has no choice but to sing his heart out for once, and Linda is so peripheral she wonders why she dropped in. By the time Martha hits that impossible high note on a slow-dance finale originally cribbed from Schubert and Liszt for Earl Carroll's Vanities of 1931, we know she's not putting Mom and Dad on notice. She's just loving the song, loving the song. A MINUS

THE PLASTIC PEOPLE OF THE UNIVERSE: 1997 (Globus International import) A great band at half the age and three quarters the speed, they fended off the dreary horror of Prague '68 with a sardonic despond that the routine oppressions of Prague '78 ground toward somber mysticism. Eventually, as happens with sects right and wrong, their fellowship soured, and only by decree of their artist president did they regroup for democracy at this gig. But though they could still play the sax-viola-guitar-keybs-gripe top and bass-forward bottom of their old music, they weren't miserable enough to recreate its mood. At a clip that suited their existential confidence and funkier, younger drummer, their spiritual alienation fell away to reveal the sonic singularity that gave it form--a Reed-Zappa amalgam so Euro it makes a nominal blues seem like sleaze for an old Elmore Leonard flick, and so intent on forward motion that the part writing only spurs it on its way. A

PULNOC: Live in New York (Globus International import) Cut the night after the U.S. debut of the Plastic People Mach II, which produced the never-released board tape I called Live at P.S. 122 when I named it my favorite recording of 1989, this subtracts a two-song encore and adds local avant-Slavophiles Elliott Sharp on saxophone and Gary Lucas on guitar. Unbeknownst to me till I examined the booklet, it also translates half my concert review into Czech. I'm flattered, but I still prefer the blunter, wilder version I've treasured all these years. The power of this music is its reclamation of arena-rock as motor of liberation, which in Eastern Europe it was back then, and this illusion is not enhanced by embellishment or distraction. On the other hand, it isn't demolished by them either. Covering William Blake and Lou Reed, deploying cello as low-tech synthesizer, betting all their marbles on a lead singer who's six months pregnant, they rock out as if they can can make walls fall. A MINUS

QUEEN LATIFAH: Order in the Court (Motown) A success story whose taste in beats has always run pop, she vowed to "burn MC's like calories" and was off the charts in a month for her trouble. Oh well--if Chuck D can't get respect with Spike Lee behind him, what can a fat-flaunting, sitcom-fronting, dyke-playing woman expect? Here's hoping she swings every way she wants and recommending her sexual ambivalence to females everywhere. Things get bland and icky, especially when designated ingenue Inaya Jafan makes nice to the fellas, but the thematic "Yes/No" is educational right down to its tender skit. And for what it's worth, by the end of the record she seems to be proposing to the guy it's aimed at. Really, 28 isn't too old--and Latifah knows it. B PLUS

SOUL COUGHING: El Oso (Slash/Warner Bros.) They wish they could call it Il Oso, counterposing parallel verticals against circle-squiggle-circle palindrome in a visualization of their true passion: abstraction. They can't, of course, Spanish is Spanish just like groove is groove, and because they know the fundamental things apply, their abstractions still hit you in the gut. Voice-keyb-bass up top are distinct and autonomous constituents, a cable not a gumbo, with the upright romanticism of Sebastian Steinberg and try-anything soundplay of Mark De Gli Antoni providing human touch--as they'd better, because rather than anchoring or signposting, M. Doughty's words establish his intelligence and then bounce us back into the aural construct for emotion and such. You may say you pine for his sarcasm. But he'll just wonder if you thought he'd be corny forever. A MINUS [Later]

SUNZ OF MAN: (The Last Shall Be First) (Red Ant) "This rap game ain't what it seems/Artists get creamed turn fiend sellin' people a dream," observe these "intellectuals, rhymin' professionals" ("there go the ladies in our directional"), and this bothers them. Pronouncing it cog-knack, exploring their Maccabee heritage in secondhand Yiddish, singsonging a disarmingly tuneless "tryin' to free our minds of all the drugs and crime," Sunz of Man are poor righteous teachers, street but not hard. And though their Wu-schooled musical religion is more Bernard Herrmann than James Brown, they're deeply proud to share a studio with Earth, Wind & Fire. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

FAT JOE: Don Cartagena (Mystic/Big Beat/Atlantic) Promising "the best in hardcore hip hop," the former work boy and bus robber wants to show up the--what was that again, let me check my notes--"fake niggas" who are ripping off his former lifestyle. So he orders plenty murders and disrespects plenty hos (as opposed to "intelligent, civilized divas") before proceeding to the usual violin-drenched do-what-I-say-not-what-I-did--aimed, he says, at "the drug-dealin', thug-ass motherfuckin' niggas listening to Fat Joe." Though Noreaga's cameo sounds as soulful as Otis Redding by comparison, I believe Joe is more enlightened than some of these citizens. I also believe the rest of us can happily live without him. C PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Ruffhouse): PC record of the year--songs soft, singing ordinary, rapping skilled, rhymes up and down, skits de trop, production subtle and terrific ("Lost Ones," "Superstar")
  • Outkast, Aquemini (LaFace): men enough to call choruses "hooks," they probably would have quit the life even without them ("Slouch," "Aquemini") [Later: A-]
  • MC Lyte, Seven & Seven (EastWest): Missy-of-the-Year jump start, '70s-funk cruise control ("In My Business," "Too Fly," "Top Billin'")
  • Fatboy Slim, You've Come a Long Way, Baby (Astralwerks): I ask you, does Weird Al hit paydirt every time out? ("The Rockafeller Skank," "In Heaven") [Later: ***]
  • Brandy, Never Say Never (Atlantic): America's sweetheart, and why not? ("The Boy Is Mine," "U Don't Know Me," "Almost Doesn't Count")
  • The Roots All Stars, Gathering of the Spirits (Shanachie): Mutabaruka, Sly, Robbie, and friends meet the predancehall elite (Culture, "Blackman King"; the Mighty Diamonds, "Blackman Pride")
  • Wu-Tang Killa Bees, The Swarm (Wu-Tang): miscellaneous battle cries and war stories ("Never Again," "Cobra Clutch")
  • Everlast, Whitey Ford Sings the Blues (Tommy Boy): not much to boast about beyond being alive, and better for it ("The Letter," "7 Years")
  • Lyricist Lounge Volume 1 (Rawkus): can't beat the atmosphere (Word A' Mouth, "Famous Last Words"; Bahamadia and Rah Digga, "Be OK")
  • Alpha Yaya Diallo, Aduna "The World" (Tinder): Guinéean doctor's son learns guitar in Malinke, botany in college, and pan-Africanism in Vancouver, British Columbia ("Yéké Yéké," "Aduna")
  • Monica, The Boy Is Mine (Arista): B-diva with actual vocal technique, and why not? ("The Boy Is Mine," "Misty Blue")
  • Ted Hawkins, The Final Tour (Evidence): died trying ("Bring It on Home Daddy," "There Stands the Glass")
Choice Cuts:
  • The Jackson 5, "You've Really Got a Hold on Me" (Motown Sings Motown Treasures, Motown)
  • Lord Tariq & Peter Gunz, "My Time To Go" (Make It Reign, Columbia)
  • A Tribe Called Quest, "Rock Rock Y'All" (The Love Movement, Jive)
  • Beyond Three, "The Positive Step" (Return of the D.J. Vol. II, Bomb)
  • Monifah, "Touch It" (Mo'Hogany, Universal)
  • Melanie B, "I Want You Back" (Why Do Fools Fall in Love, EastWest/Warner Sunset)
  • Gangsta Boo, Enquiring Minds (Relativity)
  • Los Super Seven (RCA)
  • Queen Pen, My Melody (Li'l Man/Interscope)
  • The Superjesus, Sumo (Warner Bros.)
  • Witchdoctor, . . . A S.W.A.T. Healin' Ritual (Organized Noize/Interscope)

Village Voice, Nov. 3, 1998

Sept. 29, 1998 Dec. 1, 1998