Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Nas Names Names (But Not His Album), K'naan (Whose Name You've Never Heard) and More

Chartwise, the rapper of the month is Nas, who unlike last month's rapper of the year has never been everything believers believe. His long-awaited new what-you-say is less accomplished than June and May's equally long-awaited pop groups of the month: Coldplay and Death Cab for Cutie. But it's also meatier. Meatier still, and in a similar vein, is K'naan, who few in the States have ever heard.

Jean Grae: Jeanius (Blacksmith) Her intelligent rhymes, immaculate flow, and adequate beats make her the great gorgeous mind queen rap has never had. But she's now 32, rumored to have quit the business even as Talib Kweli's label prepped this long-rumored album and Babygrande assembled a preemptive outtakes double, and more than ever failure is her great theme. Good thing she's infinitely smarter about her "insecurities" and "moodiness" than her shoegazer counterparts. And before articulating those laments, she backs up her Jay-Z impression with rhymes so jam-packed she doesn't even care, at that moment, that her music "don't make appropriate wealth." Like for instance: "Please don't be mad at me, I'd rather be liked/Because your opinion automatically matters to me. Psych." A MINUS

Hamell on Trial: Rant and Roll (Righteous Babe) Though the man aka Hamell on Trial wields a loud acoustic guitar, this document of his award-winning 2007 performance at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is basically a comedy record. Sinking old, new, and previously unrecorded songs into monologues about pizza-faced pizza bosses and his kid's chance of getting hit by a car, he harangues, jokes around, and rocks out about "the terrorism of everyday life"--a theme epitomized for Hamell by the recent finding that oral sex increases the practitioner's susceptibility to cancer by 250 percent. He rarely bothers scoring political points because he figures his audience doesn't need them. Instead he expands on power's existential ramifications. The concert lasts 63 minutes; a truncated version pumped with sharp interviews and low-budget visual interpolations occupies a one-hour DVD. Comedy records wear out, and unless friends come over, you may not play this one much even if you love it the first time. But if my description makes you think you might love it, you will. A MINUS

K'naan: The Dusty Foot Philosopher (iM Culture) Hip-hop is the most vital musical genre on the planet and Afropop has a glorious history. But African hip-hop is uneven, awkwardly derivative, hard to hear from the outside. So this Somalia-born Canadian is some kind of miracle worker. After rapping phonetically to CDs mailed to Mogadishu by his father, a Third World intellectual turned immigrant cabdriver, K'naan learned English from scratch when he finally escaped Mogadishu himself, and his skills are gigantic. What accent he has is subsumed in his high, sharp, unexpectedly comedic flow. He embellishes his simple beats with deft choruses and tunelets, and his African effects are savvy and unforced. The album opens with water music I'd tag as Mbuti, meaning forest-derived, although Somalia is desert--a sound I've always believed rappers should sample for the delight of it, and that he makes signify. Before you assume the guy is kinda soft, imagine the war-zone childhood described in "What's Hardcore?" He thinks you're soft, and will take you down if you get in his way. A

Seun Kuti + Fela's Egypt 80: Seun Kuti + Fela's Egypt 80 (Disorient) Afrobeat is America's most imitated Afropop style because its Americanization runs so deep, and because its protest component appeals to the kind of Americans who think playing Afropop is a cool thing to do. The loping, polyrhythmic, funked-up groove Fela Kuti invented is pretty surefire, too--until you cue up an actual Fela record and remind your body how dynamic that ride can be. Not that Antibalas should feel bad--African Afrobeat musicians, what few there are, rarely hold up against Fela either, including his well-bred eldest son Femi. That's why this album by Fela's youngest son is such an event. Commandeering his father's old band, he generates surer and leaner propulsion than Fela himself did in the decade preceding his 1997 death, and though Seun's rough pidgin doesn't rivet you like Fela's speechifying shout, he projects a sense of mission and outrage rare in scions claiming a genius's revolutionary legacy. Plus this: Smack in between "Na Oil" and "Mosquito Song" comes "Fire Dance," where Fela's 69-year-old trap drummer Baba Jasco gallops louder than ever before over the cantering legacy of his famed bandmate Tony Allen. A MINUS

Menya: The Ol' Reach-Around (no label) Conflict of interest alert: I've taught everybody in this band at New York University. But this is the first of many student demos that I've eagerly played twice. So I had it sent to three of my editors, all of whom seconded my enthusiasm and one of whom had it reviewed without prod from me. So believe me--a small, filthy find. It comprises three electro-raps and three electro-pops fronted by the so-called Coco Dame, whose lyrics are a lot less Latinate than her Missy Elliott paper. Her fusion of bravado and vulnerability, erotic appetite and emotional yearning, is catchy, cheap, and right down my alley. A MINUS

Nas: Untitled (Def Jam) Between warning Barack Obama not to say out loud what most black voters believe about fatherhood and warning Nasir Jones not to name his new album after the turned derogatory that was an African-American commonplace long before the gangsta rap Nas has been transfiguring since Illmatic, Jesse Jackson has clearly lost it. This album would have been so much more coherent if Nas could have entitled it something like, to cite a surviving song title, "N.I.*.*.E.R," and included a few of the related deletions available on the Green Lantern mixtape cited below. That's because, in the classic manner of turned derogatories, the "n.i.*.*.e.r" songs articulate the confusion and contradiction of a "revolutionary" whose historical analysis encompasses Orwell, Pushkin, Farrakhan, "The Matrix," the Masons, pale horseman William Cooper, Africans-discovered-America scholar Ivan van Sertima, a UFO he saw himself, "the ghetto where old black women talk about they sugar level," every luxury brand known to bling and "an elite group that runs everything"--the last of which, for the record, I half believe in myself. The beats beat Green Lantern's. And what the finale has to say about Obama is so sane I may just check out van Sertima myself. A MINUS

Nigeria 70: Lagos Jump: Original Heavyweight Afrobeat, Highlife & Afro-Funk (Strut) Starts with a lively juju (wha?--see subtitle) by Sir Shina Peters, born in 1958 (wha?--see title) and along with highlife new jack Victor Uwaifo easily the most famous artist on this poetically shambolic Afrocomp. When Afrobeat does surface, it lacks Fela's rage and drive, which isn't such a bad thing: Peter King's bassy, relaxed "African Dialects," Dynamic Africana's flute-fed, delicate "Igbehin Lalayo Nta," and Eric (Showboy) Akaeze's protracted, assalam-aleikoumed "Wetin De Watch Goat, Goat Dey Watcham" are all high points. Even the funk has its moments. As Ify Jerry Krusade so aptly puts it, "Everybody Likes Something Good." A MINUS

Ponytail: Ice Cream Spiritual! (We Are Free) Statistics, statistics. DIY debut: 10 songs, 27 minutes. Yeasayer-financed follow-up: eight songs in 34 minutes. So even excluding the 7:00-exactly "Celebrate the Body Electric (It Came From an Angel)," means track length here is up 32 seconds. The sound is bigger too, strengthening a band that's all guitars-drums-vocals sonics--including Molly Siegel's yelping vocables, without which the sound's faux-tween soul and wise-ass tempo shifts would evanesce into abstraction. But down in the basement, prog is building a playhouse. And if the band catches on the way it deserves, that hideout will start looking like a castle. A MINUS

Honorable Mention

  • Jean Grae: The Orchestral Files (Deluxe Edition) (Babygrande) Skills trump indirection on one disc of outtakes and another of collabs ("Nah'mean Nah'm Sayin," "My Angel Is You," "Power, Money & Influence").
  • Mike Edison and the Rocket Train Delta Science Arkestra: I Have Fun Everywhere I Go (Interstellar Roadhouse) Ex-Screw and High Times editor bellows yock-strewn war stories over punk boogie ("Pornography, Part I," "Ozzy, High Times, and Me").
  • Walé: The Mixtape About Nothing (purloined datadisc) Intelligent black rapper keys showcase to intelligent white comedian, which would be cooler if the two gents were equally inspired ("The Kramer," "The Opening Title Sequence").
  • Marc Ribot's Ceramic Dog: Party Intellectuals (Pi) Avant-guitarist to the cult stars constructs power trio that can play every genre he's interested in, with--what else?--mixed results ("Party Intellectuals," "Break on Through").
  • Death Cab for Cutie: Narrow Stairs (Atlantic) Unfailingly melodic, surprisingly dynamic, somewhat overextended love problems, and if he's so smart why doesn't he shelve music and solve them? ("You Can Do Better Than Me," "Grapevine Fires").
  • Nas & DJ Green Lantern: The N----- Tape (purloined datadisc) Great spoken word, dumb interview, lost keepers, lost losers and redundancies--that is, a mixtape ("Be a N----- Too," "Association").
  • Body of War: Songs That Inspired an Iraq War Veteran (Sire) Thirty war songs, 30 freedom songs--major and minor, obscure and familiar, with many more to come (John Lennon, "Gimme Some Truth"; System of a Down, "B.Y.O.B."; Laura Cantrell, "Love Vigilantes"; Bouncing Souls, "Letter From Iraq").
  • I See Hawks in L.A.: Hallowed Ground (Big Book) Cowpunk meets cyberpunk in Americana's dark past and damaged future ("Ever Since the Grid Went Down," "Carbon Dated Love").
  • Eténésh & Le Tigre (Des Platanes): Zèraf! (Buda Musique) Gallic guitar-drums-sax-trumpet unit enlists brave Ethiopian alto, evokes full weird Ethiopian horn band ("Muziqawi Silt," "Ambassel").
  • Eef Barzelay: Lose Big (429) "True freedom from all earthly constraints" is a chimera, right, but Clem Snide's greatest melody helps you forget it ("I Love the Unknown," "Could Be Worse," "Apocalyptic Friend").
  • Nada Surf: Lucky (Barsuk) Ambivalent tunes about love and death that deserve the full title "Just Lucky, I Guess" ("Whose Authority," "The Film Did Not Go 'Round").
  • Coldplay: Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends (Capitol) Applying all his powers, Chris Martin successfully dilutes Radiohead, with--what else?--pleasant results ("Viva la Vida," "42").
  • Travis Morrison Hellfighters: All Y'All (Barsuk) Emo goduncle showcases solider emotional smarts than many hepper heart-on-sleevers ("I'm Not Supposed to Like You [But]," "You Make Me Feel Like a Freak").
  • Ride the Boogie: Ride the Boogie (Longhair Illuminati/Boogie Disks) Honestly monikered Warped Tour vets demonstrate the continued compatibility of blues chords, rock rebellion and cunnilingus ("All Night," "Naughty Corner").

Choice Cuts

  • Dog Murras, "Kamussekele" (The Rough Guide to African Street Party, World Music Network)
  • Rhany, "Un Mot de Toi"; Amr Diab, "Amarain" (The Rough Guide to World Music: Africa & Middle East, World Music Network)
  • Jason Mraz, "Wordplay," "Geek in the Pink" (Mr. A-Z, Atlantic)
  • Jason Mraz, "Love for a Child" (We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things, Atlantic)
  • George Stanford, "Get Free" (Big Drop, Mercury)

Dud of the Month

Three 6 Mafia: Last 2 Walk (Hypnotize Minds/Columbia) It's easy out there for an Oscar winner, but you'd never know it from these entertainment moguls, who pretend or report that they're still investing in mayhem, misogyny and sales careers whose main drawback is that they can get you arrested. Case in point: Dat Dumbass Project Pat, who with three years in the pen behind him adds extra soupcons of brutality just in case Hollywood has turned Juicy J soft. Watch out, little brother. As Pat's fellow enforcer DJ Unk puts it, he loves having sex, but he'd rather get some head. C

More Duds

  • D'banj: No Long Thing (Blue Pie)
  • The Dirty Projectors: Rise Above (Dead Oceans)
  • Foxy Brown: Brooklyn's Don Diva (Koch)
  • K-Os: Collected (Virgin)
  • Local H: Twelve Angry Months (Shout! Factory)
  • Nigeria Rock Special: Psychedelic Afro-Rock & Fuzz Funk in 1970s Nigeria (Soundway)
  • Statehood: Lies and Rhetoric (Statehood)

MSN Music, August 2008

July 2008 September 2008