Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Coup

  • Kill My Landlord [Wild Pitch, 1993] **
  • Genocide and Juice [Wild Pitch, 1994] *
  • Steal This Album [Dogday, 1998] A
  • Party Music [75 Ark, 2001] A
  • Pick a Bigger Weapon [Epitaph, 2006] A
  • Sorry to Bother You [Anti-, 2012] A-
  • Sorry to Bother You: The Soundtrack [Interscope, 2018] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Kill My Landlord [Wild Pitch, 1993]
collegiate revolutionary cliche equals gangsta revolutionary revelation ("Dig It!," "I Know You") **

Genocide and Juice [Wild Pitch, 1994]
gangstas never, criminals when they deem it necessary ("Fat Cats, Bigger Fish," "Takin' These") *

Steal This Album [Dogday, 1998]
Even in the wake of albums called Kill Your Landlord and Genocide and Juice, it's a shock to hear anyone working in a pop form come out and say flatly: "See, I'm a communist." But the Coup are pure Oakland, a cross between Too Short, whose deep-bumping beats presaged a live-in-the-studio funk that would have sounded old school when the Bomb Squad was def, and David Hilliard, the Panther whose autobiography tops a reading list that also recommends Manning Marable and Saul Alinsky. Boots Riley's tour de force, which climaxes by flipping a surprisingly street Microsoft-Macintosh metaphor, is a corny, well-plotted tale where a 24-year-old kills the pimp and surrogate father who long ago murdered his mom. But every track impresses, including the music-as-dope opener, the revolutionary call to arms, the brutal medical expose ("It seems that he's lost the will to pay"), the repo-man burlesque, funny stories about sneaking into the movies and driving broken-down hoopties, and "Underdogs," which translates Manning Marable into terms any ghetto struggler can recognize. Ideologues believe communist artists are never this humorous, this balanced, this concrete. They're wrong. A

Party Music [75 Ark, 2001]
Imperfect musically (two slow ones) and politically (too anti-Amerikkkan). And right, this is the album with the withdrawn cover of Boots Riley detonating the WTC--a pun gone terribly wrong, tracks "blowing up," get it? Fortunately, most of the jokes are less doctrinaire--there are dozens better in "5 Million Ways to Kill a C.E.O." alone, like "We could let him change a flat tire/Or we could all at once retire." The title's a pun, too, signifying Black Panther or Communist (or necktie), only not only, because the tracks blow up: The live band, the male and female choruses, and DJ Pam the Funkstress do here commit a positive groove worthy of Frankie Beverly, Digital Underground, Chuck Brown. Similarly, the slogans-to-go that begin with the first verse--"Every death is an abrupt one/Every cop is a corrupt one/Without no cash up in a trust fund/Every cat with a gat wants to bust one/Every guest wants a plus-one"--are underpinned by songs wise beyond anybody's years, such as the woman-friendly tale of the girl who convinced a fumbling 17-year-old Boots that he'd fathered her child. Imperfect, definitely. But only because perfection is on the table. A

Pick a Bigger Weapon [Epitaph, 2006]
Boots Riley's live-in-the-studio funk is as retro as his Afro, and when Talib Kweli percusses next to him you'd think his flow was straight out the Watts Prophets. So call him corny if his Marxist talk makes you nervous. Fact is, the brother's some writer, with his own Oaktown sound. Marxism fans should start with the two love songs: "Ijustwannalayaroundalldayinbedwithyou" lays out the rationalization of the capitalist workday, while the Silk E. feature "BabyLet'sHaveABabyBeforeBushDoSomethin'Crazy" speaks for itself. Plus the Chomskyite "Head (of State)" also has sex in it, the sponsored "Ass-Breath Killers" will help cure your bootymouth, and "I Love Boosters!" is merely the warmest of many shout-outs to a criminal community he's too busy to join. Riley understands as well as any songwriter in America how the black poor and other barely employeds get by, and he also understands who's taking their money, and how. His lesser songs would be dookie gold on an ordinary undie-rap album. And he's no moralizer: "I'm here to laugh, love, fuck, and drink liquor/And help the damn revolution come quicker." A

Sorry to Bother You [Anti-, 2012]
As a proud communist who's spent his career claiming the people are ripe for revolution, Boots Riley has at his disposal a rich, seldom-tapped seam of scathing rhetoric and concrete metaphor and fleshes out leftist analysis with humanist muscle and poetic integument. How many anti-school rants rise to "statistics is the tool of the complicit"? How many anti-hipster snark jobs match "You're the asshole ambassador/But your friends obey like Labradors/I vomited on the alpine decor/It's OK, your daddy's gonna buy some more"? But as he passes 40 it gets harder to deny that, ultimately, he's almost as deluded as the average H.P. Lovecraft obsessive, who at least understands he's on a fantasy trip. The songcraft on this hard-rocking hip-hop album is uneven by Riley's high standards--some are unclear, others longer on hook than wisdom. So when Das Racist and Killer Mike join in on the finale, I'm happy to be reminded that there are younger rappers ready to move Riley's vision worldward. Good for him. A-

Sorry to Bother You: The Soundtrack [Interscope, 2018]
Six of the nine tracks on an album that breakthrough director Boots Riley couldn't resist tacking onto his debut flick are boosted by guest stars, including undeniables Tune-Yards, Killer Mike, and E-40, although the two Janelle MonŠes seem a mite thin for his baked-in Oakland funk. And all three Boots-alones are in his ideologically revolutionary tradition, which now goes back a quarter century. "We Need an Eruption"? "Level It Up"? He means those things, as he always has, although of course he's also glad "level" rhymes with "Neville"--Aaron, to be specific. A-

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