Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Playboy Music

On 1996's Odelay, the L.A.-based folksinger Beck catapulted into platinum sales with a detached mix-and-match exploration of hip hop sampling techniques, and was quickly lauded as a champion of postmodern irony and indirection. It's understandable, then, that his most cool-conscious fans pass off Mutations (DGC) as a throwaway. Postmodern it ain't. With Beck singin' and playin' over a gentle studio pickup band that rarely even employs a synthesizer, this is folk-rock, pure and simple. But while I'd never predict what the changeable Beck Hansen will do next--why else do you think he called it Mutations?--to me it sounds as if he's keeping up with the times in a period when folk roots are being reimagined all the way back to Woody Guthrie. The album's lyrics can get woozy and depressive, but the directness of its arrangements and song structures is definitely not ironic. It's pleasurable, comfortable, the way old forms are supposed to be, and postmodernists who know what's good for them will learn to enjoy it--even if that means consorting with the uncool.

Insisting that his hustling tales are drawn from life, New York rapper Jay-Z honors the gangsta ethos way too much to suit a law-abiding square like me, and I found his 1997 In My Lifetime easy to ignore. But the smash Vol. 2 . . . Hard Knock Life (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam) is just as hard to deny. This time the beats hip hop cognoscenti praise are out front where the rest of us can enjoy them, from the audacious Annie sample that made the title cut a hit to the keyboard vibes of coproducer Swizz Beats, who shows signs that he listens to postminimalist composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich. And whatever Jay-Z's moral values, the man knows how to put words together and say them real fast.

Playboy, Nov. 1998

Oct. 1998 Dec. 1998