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Expert Witness: May 2016

May 6, 2016

Link: Alt-Rap Exemplars: Lyrics Born / Homeboy Sandman / Open Mike Eagle / Cavanaugh / Blackalicious / D.R.A.M.

Lyrics Born: Now Look What You've Done, Lyrics Born!: Greatest Hits! (Mobile Home) Although his albums work fine as units, this cherry-pick cements Tokyo-born rapper Tom Shimura's demographically improbable standing as--with the exception of the elusive D'Angelo, I guess--the finest trad-funk vocalist of the new century. True, he lacks the black South chocolate that would normally flavor such an offhand drawl and relaxed flow--his very male timbre is more redolent of a northern office grunt shooting the shit over a six o'clock beer. But his cadences make the music move. Shimura's true place of origin is Berkeley, which would locate his politics if he didn't believe that in hip-hop, wisecracking middle-class critical realism is ideology aplenty. Instead, his home city has nurtured in him a taste in beats that at its best recalls both Boots Riley and Too Short. It's an East Bay thing, so try to understand. A

Homeboy Sandman: Kindness for Weakness (Stones Throw) Strictly on the down-low (is that the phrase?), Angel del Villar has recorded more quality long-players than anyone over the past decade. He's not a great--his sibilantly articulated flow just isn't as beautiful as Jay Z's, Lil Wayne's, or Nicki Minaj's. But when I wanted to demur mildly from his 2013 All That I Hold Dear, all I could do was quote his perturbed "How can an artist make too much art?" The answer is for the artist to fall in with a disrespected genre, as alt-rap seems doomed to remain, kinda like polka. His staccato three- and four-beat lines suit the rhyme-mad verbiage and moral directness you should love him for, and it's nice that he adds a common touch and a sense of humor. Highlights here are the lyrical "Heart Sings," the rousing "Real New York," the unrequited "Sly Fox," the religious "God," and the more religious "Speak Truth." Give him a fucking break, willya? A MINUS

Open Mike Eagle + Paul White: Hella Personal Film Festival (Mello Music) Alt-rapper Eagle dominates this meeting of the oddballs, as vocalist-lyricists will. But it's the rockish samples of outlying London beatmaker White that define it, because their blatant indifference to hip-hop or EDM align Eagle with talky singer-songwriters like Jeffrey Lewis and Charlie King as much as with Kool A.D. or Serengeti. "All my heroes is singers that can't sing," he ventures amid thoughts on cellphone dependence, barstool codependency, Obama flying by in a drone, and the skin he's in. So figure he already knows that the most powerful sonic here is a snatch of Lenny Bruce. That man had a sound. B PLUS

Cavanaugh: Time and Materials (Mello Music) Serengeti and Beatmaster Open Mike Eagle rap in character from a cross-class scenario so detailed you don't always know who's rapping as who--which is interesting ("Lemons," "Typecast") ***

Blackalicious: Imani Vol. 1 (Black Mines) "Blacka than midnight in Kuwait or Afghanistan"--also than "the president (well, half of him)" ("Blacka," "Alpha and Omega") **

D.R.A.M.: #1EpicSummer (self-released) More believable when he's dark and textural, more likable when he's soft and melodic ("Cha Cha," "$") **

Lyrics Born: Real People (Mobile Home) Hold on, Tom--when we say funk, Galactic is not what we have in mind ("Around the Bend," "Real People") *

May 13, 2016

Link: The Poet and the Hustler: Dawn Oberg / Dej Loaf

Dawn Oberg: Rye (Blossom Theory '12) There are breakup albums and then there's this: forties-ish woman, heavy of voice and keyboard with wit and juices lightly flowing, introduces herself as "The Girl Who Sleeps With Books" and regrets plenty while continuing to enjoy the title elixir, although it brings him to mind and that hurts. In a song that lasts 1:35 she hints at why, twice: "He likes to read Thucydides / But doesn't mock stupidities / He's probably read Euripides as well / But he's really not the type to read and tell." Midpart's more meditative, including straight advice directed straight to a stranger straight from the heart. Then the actual breakup tale--"No one was was vindictive, no one lied / Shagged the nanny or the pool boy on the side"--gets us to a celebration of her true love, which is San Francisco. "The bars are sexier than sex," she claims, and if it makes her feel better she should definitely think that. A

DeJ Loaf: Sell Sole (self-released '14) DeJ rhymes with "beige" and is short for Deja; Loaf signals style and is short for her shoes. Although the girlish Detroit rapper's second mixtape was sparked by her fuck-you earworm "Try Me," which used to cap it off but isn't on the one I bought two years late, I found her hammer-to-your-head manifesto for her "unborn creations" so irresistible that I never much missed it. It's the voice only that's girlish, clear and fluting although also calm and composed. The persona is more "I'm gonna shit on all these bitches and their daughters," in that particular case echoed by a crew I bet she enlisted at a middle-school playground. What's irresistible is the form-content disparity--a rapper who brags so un-macho, a rapper whose greed is so explicitly for her family, a rapper who's "Grindin'" at music. Plus her flow is a brook, her producer respects her space, and her two sex rhymes are into it and into it more. A MINUS

Dawn Oberg: Bring (Blossom Theory '15) Oberg sings in an alto that doesn't actually go flat when it modulates way down as is its wont. Delivering nine expertly wrought songs in 27 minutes, she plays acoustic piano over G-B-D with jazz gestalt, zero-plus solos, and a beat more martial than swinging. The song to the God she doesn't believe in kind of rocks even so; the song about the seductive geometry of the martini glass devotes 30 seconds to chamber music. Male love objects are MIA, although she digs her bartender; three outspoken tracks praise female friends, only one of whom deserves to be as famous as she does. Figure Oberg really isn't "so good at loving anybody up close." But you and me are at just the right distance: "Want to help your dead ass fly away when you've had your last breath / Want to rip a new one in the mean angel of death / Want to crush all your despair I want to make you laugh / Want to make St. Peter testify on your behalf." A MINUS

DeJ Loaf: Just Do It (self-released '12) Skip the annoying skit. Then play and preserve in whatever passes for your permanent collection five consecutive autobiographical songs so detailed and painful and loving and classic I have to name them all: "My Life," "Meant for Me," "Mommy I'm a Princess," "Mrs. Williams," and the amazing "College," beat just a drum with three different DeJs rapping over and behind and in between each other. After a much better skit it's DeJ ordinaire, with the advisory "Go for What You Know" and the skeptical "More Money, More Problems" worth active attention. But the shit's still free and out there, and don't kid yourself--it won't always be. B PLUS

DeJ Loaf: #AndSeeThatsTheThing (IBGM/Columbia '15) Her "debut" EP, meaning her major-label shot, begins with three rather joyful tracks--electric-celeste grindin' pledge "Desire" to burbling-synth grindin' saga "Been on My Grind" to--finally, some fun--Big Sean transactional-sex deal "Back Up." Then that killjoy Future starts nosing around, and I mean literally, in her pussy, which is as joyful as that one gets. And then comes two pieces of theoretical product I hope earn her a full-length. She's worked hard for it. B PLUS

Dawn Oberg: Horticulture Wars (Blossom Theory '08) "Old hussies never die," she brags before cheering on her daffodils, micro-managing her soufflé, and considering the purchase of a French maid's outfit. ("Soufflé," "Since You Put Up With Me") **

DeJ Loaf: All Jokes Aside (self-released '16) Takes on some grit as she takes on "Them niggaz they want us to fail," but don't worry--you'll still be there to root for her. ("Bitch Please," "How") **

May 20, 2016

Link: Baton Rouge, Big Beats, and Beyoncé: Beyoncé, Kevin Gates, A$AP Ferg, Azealia Banks

Beyoncé: Lemonade (Columbia) So we know this would-be soundtrack functions musically as an art-soul concept album, right? Groove, flow, funk, that stuff? Present, sure, but only as part of ye olde aesthetic whole, and not the fundamental part. Nor, for that matter, are songs the fundamental part, because they're all also dramas, performances, LP-á-clef puzzle pieces. In fact, with the artist injecting a thought-through quantum of pained, proud, gritty, airy, furious, nostalgic, or conciliatory "feeling" into each line, the songwriting per se can seem like a stitched-together afterthought. So it's to Beyoncé's credit that only in the pivotal big ballad, which really is called "Sandcastles," plus maybe the loving midtempo de facto finale "All Night," does all this overstatement become too much for a Billie Holiday fan like me. Less to her credit is that said fan spent a solid week reaching this conclusion. He doesn't deny it was worth it. But Beyoncé itself he got quicker and will always prefer. A MINUS

Kevin Gates: Islah (Atlantic) There's so much criminal detail here I believe he has a dope income stream as well as a musical income stream, but unlike the usual trap street soldier, he's not hard. There's so much sexual detail here I believe his dick is long and he can go all night, but unlike the usual R&B smarm merchant, he's not smooth. He's just ready. There's barely a wasted track on a major-label bid that has more hooks than a Temptations best-of and more moods than a four-year-old at Disneyland. Do I like everything he says, much less puts on Instagram? Not close. But his saga is an encouraging, fascinating, educational up. This is a guy who always brings his daughter on tour and thinks affluence is a big day at Bloomingdale's. He's emotional, tender, violent, sensual, fickle, determined, fatalistic, unpredictable, unreliable, hedonistic, and from Louisiana. In a land of 10,000 wannabes, he's an original. And his only cameo is a Trey Songz throwaway on the "deluxe." C'mon, people. Who needs Trey Songz with Kevin Gates ready to cry his heart out, rub your aching feet, and put his finger up your booty? A MINUS

A$AP Ferg: Always Strive and Prosper (Polo Grounds/RCA) When you're dealing language, the payoff is in the details, which is why his family seems so much realer than his cars ("Psycho," "Grandma") ***

Azealia Banks: Slay-Z (self-released) Seriously fluent, seriously flaky rapper as the dancefloor diva you love more than her beats--or, obviously, her tweets. ("Along the Coast," "The Big Big Beat") **

May 27, 2016

Link: Roots Rock Radicals: Buddy Miller / Margo Price / Brandi Carlile / Cam / Lisa Said / Kelsea Ballernii / Lucinda Williams

Buddy Miller: Cayamo Sessions at Sea (New West) Seems too easy: A-list guitarist who's also a discreetly OK singer duets selected country classics on some music cruise thing. But not one song is diminished or dull, and most of the honored guests put out. Richard Thompson kills Hank Williams's forlorn "Wedding Bells," which is his kind of song, and Elizabeth Cook sells Carl Smith's subclassic "If Teardrops Were Pennies," which is how she was raised. The always gutsy Lee Ann Womack putting her all into "After the Fire Is Gone"? Sure thing. The often dull Shawn Colvin crooning "Wild Horses"? Lucinda, work on your understatement. A MINUS

Margo Price: Midwest Farmer's Daughter (Third Man) In the manner of Kacey Musgraves, Price's soprano is more a coffeehouse voice than a barroom voice. Her Illinois-to-Nashville drawl is as precise as her word choices even if her "You wouldn't know class if it bit you in the ass" can't match the gusto of Loretta Lynn, whose "Fist City" midwifed its melody. But from "Four Years of Chances," which lays out the slog of a neglectful marriage mainly so she can crow about the attentive one that came next, to "Weekender," in which her old man is too broke to bail her out of jail, her clarity has a gusto of its own. Meet and greet yet another country sister who's smarter than the bros. A MINUS

Brandi Carlile: The Firewatcher's Daughter (ATO) In case you didn't know this gay Patsy-Jewel hybrid was corny, she begins by pretending "Wherever is your heart I call home" has some kick because she gives it her all and you can hum it on the Exercycle, and soon, jonesing for a hook, she's mocking a rocking "Mainstream Kid" like Peter Gabriel getting his rocks off vaunting "Sledgehammer." But having submitted these Americana bona fides, she demonstrates that the right corn can provide needed roughage--an "If you're good at telling lies, you could be my alibi," say, or a "Last night I had the exact same dream as you/I killed a bird to save your life and you gave me your shoes." In this her strong voice proves essential as you begin to notice how rarely it's overbearing. She's emotive--has to be. But she's more detailed than your usual belter, because she knows strong voices aren't just for knocking folks over. And was she ever born to cover the Avett Brothers: "Make sure my wife knows that I loved her/Make sure my daughter knows the same/And always remember there is nothing worth sharing/Like the love that let us share our name." A MINUS

Cam: Untamed (Arista) She's a rebel as Nashville defines it, neither conscious nor unconventional but not therefore d'void of spunk. ("Country Ain't Never Been Pretty," "Half Broke Heart") **

Lisa Said: First Time, Long Time ( Egyptian-American from Tennessee kicks off her Americana EP with a Huey Smith figure and makes you wonder whether her melodic shading is cultural or individual. ("Been Around," "One Too Many") **

Kelsea Ballerini: The First Time (Black River Entertainment) Hey--a Nashville Taylor Swift surrogate who literally grew up in Tennessee (listening to Britney and Xtina). ("Dibs," "Second Hand Smoke") *

Lucinda Williams: The Ghosts of Highway 20 (Highway 20) Fine but increasingly long-winded bandleader splits the difference between po'-faced and lugubrious by mourning her father and salvaging a few outtakes. ("If My Love Could Kill," "Doors of Heaven") *

Noisey, May 2016

April 2016 June 2016