Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide by Review Date: 2013-06-25


J Cole: Born Sinner (Roc Nation/Columbia, 2013) You can see why this diligent St. John's magna tops off his make-or-break with the apologetic "Let Nas Down"--the totemic rapper he betrayed, apparently, by tacking the harmless banger "Work Out" onto Cole World, as if Nas rechristening himself Escobar wasn't five times as cheap. Conceptually, this album is an Illmatic move. Musically it's fancied up as it must be from the spare skills of his three mixtapes. But like Illmatic it eschews pop emoluments, and conceptually it's just as canny. Craving street cred while rejecting crime as a hustle or a metaphor, the young man who "couldn't sell crack but I rap good" plays the mack daddy. But just as the younger Nas is fascinated by the pitfalls of a corner-boy lifestyle he's not quite part of, this ambitious youngblood is a chronically repentant horndog. Most of his sex songs are also apologies--to a wife or girlfriend, to the women he discards, to other women wronged by other dogs, he varies the theme with winning empathy. But I still prefer him class-conscious: spitting "I hate richniggaz goddammit/'Cause I ain't never had a lot dammit" and ending all but one of "Mo Money"'s 24 quick lines with the M-word. On "Crooked Smile," he combines the two themes hauntingly and elusively--helped big time by the historically pop women of TLC. B+

Serengeti: The Kenny Dennis LP (Anticon, 2013) Moving and comic new insights into David Cohn's most beloved character, with the skits precious and the rapping per se provided by KDz--including a bootleg tape by the younger Kenny's House of Pain answer group Tha Grimm Teachaz, which plays faintly behind a traffic stop (luckily, the officer at the window is Kenny's best friend Curtis), and the incomprehensible home recording "Punks." In my favorite skit, Kenny meets his lifelong protegee Ders when he's denied a cash refund on a malfunctioning no-fog shaving mirror and buys the eight-year-old a shower radio with his store credit. In my favorite rap, he celebrates wedded bliss with Jueles: "Buddhists and Cubans fit together like a Rubik's Cube." The narrative matters on this album, and as always, newcomers should hear Dennehy first. But Cohn is one of a kind, and he don't stop. A-

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