Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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MICHAEL FRANTI & SPEARHEAD
Stay Human
Six Degrees

The annoying back story of Michael Franti & Spearhead's Stay Human climaxes with a mush-mouthed cartoon of a rightwing governor committing suicide after revelations that he has executed an innocent woman. Oh dear. If it were that easy, we'd soon have a dead prez, plus a half-dead one with a stint where his heart should be. By all means check out Franti's credible performance as the DJ on a listener-supported station. But program around the 11 minutes of "radio segments" if you want to find out how the onetime Disposable Hero of Hiphoprisy is progressing in his life project of turning into Gil Scott-Heron.

Not bad, actually. Franti's political specifics are dumber than Dubya at times, but his heart is in the right place, and it gets bigger all the time. Whatever the deficiencies of his social program (fetal DNA protests, anyone?), he establishes compassion and earns affection just by bothering to have one. Throughout, the music per se conveys deep feeling for the "lovely freaks and weirdos who are just tryin' to make it through life" to whom he dedicates the title track, hooked by a lyrical "Boom bop" chorus that transmutes to an aggressively percussive "Bom-bom" on "Rock the Nation."

From the beginning Franti has favored a retro, flow-through groove, and here his funk adds a decidedly disco flavor. Especially notable, and way fun, is the hoo-hooing or echoing femme chorus that tricks up many tracks. And though his baritone lacks the resonance of his role model's, Franti's spoken-to-breathy singing does a lot more with phrasing and intonation than the usual rapper-as-love-man monotone. "Do Ya Love" and "Thank You" will never compete with "Inner City Blues." But if you were to encounter them on your listener-supported station, you'd wish the damn DJ talked less and played more such stuff.

Spin, July 2001