Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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This was originally published as exclusive content, in Robert Christgau's And It Don't Stop newsletter. You can have Christgau's posts delivered to your mailbox if you subscribe.

Consumer Guide: June, 2022

Songlets from Africa, songs from Brooklyn, thoughts on fame and sudden wealth from a Pulitzer winner, and unique music to match unique rhymes.

Drive-By Truckers: Welcome 2 Club XIII (ATO) Set to tour Europe after their spell in virtual quarantine, they holed up in an Athens studio and recorded seven of these nine mostly excellent if less than far-ranging songs all in a flurry. For Patterson Hood there's kind of a concept, not ordinarily one with much juice in it: the vicissitudes and occasional delights of the touring life--safe driving tips, drug casualties on both sides of eternity, success settling into something more like survival, and a title number in which Foghat tribute bands and local miscreants covering "People Who Died" enliven Muscle Shoals's only punk club. And for Inspirational Verse there's this Mike Cooley stanza: "All those well-intentioned lies/That I myself romanticized/Believably enough to pass as love songs/With more than one man on one knee/It never stops amazing me/How easily the heart hears what it wants to." A MINUS

Mary Gauthier: Dark Enough to See the Stars (In the Black) May she love again, as she leaves no doubt she deserves to ("Thank God for You," "Amsterdam") **

Hata Unacheza: Sub-Saharan Acoustic Guitar & String Music, ca. 1960s (Canary '13) Initially assembled by de facto musicologist Ian Nagoski as an atmospheric mixtape for his Baltimore record shop, these 18 songlets from 7 African nations proved the biggest seller on his tiny label, which bemused Nagoski: "A great, little collection, but it's incredibly slight work." And slight it may be by musicological standards. But as its simple melodies range over assorted moods, they recall for me the kind of charm, at a lower level of intensity and delight, that proved so momentous on John Storm Roberts's Africa Dances half a century ago. This comparison speaks well of Nagoski's ears while making you wonder just how "slight" delight can ever be. And then at the end come two not so happy ones from tiny Burundi near the former Zaire, counted the world's unhappiest country by the UN's World Happiness Report (and what does it mean that there needs to be such a thing?). First comes Francis Muduga's deathly "Whispered Song," and you've never heard anything like it. But then follows Ntiruwama's lively "Shoza Abarinda," which is all guitar and seems a proper reprise, a proper closer, and a whisper of hope for Burundi. A MINUS

Kendrick Lamar: Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers (PGLang/Top Dawg Entertainment/Aftermath/Interscope) Five years after his unprecedented not to say dumbfounding Pulitzer, Compton's favorite son returns with an album only he could make. Rags-to-riches miracles are a pop music meme because in few other endeavors is the transformation so lickety-split, so unpredictable. That said, however, not many instant cynosures have the guts or brains to make much artistically of the privilege and displacement that come with instant riches and renown--that's Beatles and Dylan territory, maybe in their very different ways Prince and Neil Young, and in not one of these cases was Pulitzer-size validation part of the deal. So it's to Lamar's credit that many of his new songs deal so unbraggadociously with the obvious theme of how bizarre and confusing fame and the sudden wealth it generates can be. Sure he buys the impossible cars and exotic timepieces that signify status in hip-hop. But he doesn't so much show them off as check the appropriate boxes while admitting that he doesn't know what to make of his riches. Nor does he brag about the pussy-chasing "lust addiction" with which he saddles the long-suffering Whitney, his fiancee of seven years, the mother of his two children, and perhaps too the inspiration for the raw six-minute spoken-word exchange with Taylor Paige that Lamar unloads smack in the middle of the album, rendering it impossible to play front-to-back as music solely: a mean, painfully detailed sex fight in which the two lovers insult each other till almost the end, when out of nowhere they start to fuck instead. Also of note is the one that begins "My auntie is a man now/I think I'm old enough to understand now." Not that he does, necessarily. But anyone unimpressed that he has the decency to bring it up is living in a bubble. A MINUS

Leikeli47: Shape Up (Hardcover/RCA) Masked temptress mixes hard and cute ("Carry Anne," "LL Cool J," "Chitty Bang") ***

My Idea: That's My Idea (Hardly Art) Where Lily Konigsberg's Palberta 5000 was too spare for my taste, on this five-track debut her collaboration with guitarist-plus Nate Amos is often delicate and sometimes almost feathery. And though her fragile to half-whispered soprano is obviously crucial to the overall effect, so are all the other elements, particularly when the electronic percussion doesn't so much clatter as pitter-patter. Following a miraculous earworm of an opener unconvincingly titled 'I Can't Dance" are other irresistible intimations of delight cut with insecurity: "I think it's just my mixed-up mind ain't anything about her" or "Sure looks like you're laughing at my jokes/But inside you're crying like a baby." After all, whose idea was this anyway? She really wants to know. A

My Idea: Cry MFer (Hardly Art) Not only her musical collaborator but by all accounts her romantic partner as well, Nate Amos adds muscle to Lily Konigsberg's little voice, big brain, and mutable heart while also pissing her off sometimes. On their official debut album, their magic is less surefire than on their tossed-off-or-was-it 2021 EP--they definitely document or at least enact some serious conflict here. Fortunately for them and more importantly us, however, they also come together, and not just in the end either. Here's hoping that what happens next will take care of itself. A MINUS

Youssou N'Dour: Mbalax (Universal Music Africa stream) This isn't N'Dour's first, what shall we call it, nonphysical or maybe postphysical product--the excellent live Raxas Bercy 2017 was download-only, and there must be Senegal-onlys unknown to me that fit the bill because the man never stops. But it is his first album since he signed with Universal Music Africa, which has a licensing deal with Boomplay, the biggest streaming service in a market long undermined by bootleggers who might finally give up their life of crime should the mass of African listeners leave plastic behind and take to streaming. So for just that reason you can be sure N'Dour took the album seriously while acknowledging that (a) he always takes his music seriously, (b) at 62 his miraculous high baritone has yet to lose clarity or power, and (c) the tama-driven "Gagganti ko," the multilingual "Mama Africa," and the subdued "Ndox-L'eau" are a beginning designed to go somewhere. B PLUS

Bonnie Raitt: Just Like That . . . (Redwing) It's the same old same old only if you think her traditionalist shtick is a lot mustier than it was when she invented it 50 years ago. I mean, there's an abundance of good songs here--songs with lyrics so rangy and specific that they render her fifth studio album of the century her best of the century. The two openers that chronicle love bereft and entranced like so many before them are covers this time, soon topped by the post-bereft Covid pledge "Livin' for the Ones" and a short short story in which Raitt assumes the role of a mother who opens her front door to the guy whose life was saved by the heart of the dead son she never stops mourning. Both these creations make it seem as if Raitt is missing John Prine even more than the rest of us, as does a finale sung in the voice of a murderer who finds some measure of redemption in the hospice ward of the prison he calls home. And then there's the blatantly autobiographical "Waitin' for You to Blow," where she rides shotgun on her fraught relationship with her own recovery. A MINUS

Homeboy Sandman: Don't Feed the Monster (Mello Music Group) Includes two of Homeboy's most interesting rhymes ever, but his collaborator Quelle Chris has never had enough interesting in him ("Trauma," "Alone Again") **

Homeboy Sandman: There in Spirit (Mello Music Group) Angel del Villar has long been a wonder on sheer rhyme output alone, but in recent years his music has gotten too predictable--unique to him, but predictable nonetheless--to hold up its end of the bargain. That changes drastically on this EP, where the production is why you want to hear the sharp, wide-ranging lyrics again. Thank Mello Music's Illingsworth for polymath beats and samples so textural, environmental, and hooky they can set me to grinning all by themselves. And if I'm not mistaken--can't locate the reference I tripped over in my research--one of them originated with none other than Helen Reddy. A MINUS

Vince Staples: Vince Staples (Motown) The verging on jaunty reminiscences and excuses of an ex-banger who's found a better way to live ("Are You With That?" "Taking Trips") ***

Vince Staples: Ramona Park Broke My Heart (Motown) Staples is a storyteller who brags, describes, recalls, and confesses not so much in character as in an implied third person, as if the thug life is half autobiographical milieu and half mere subject matter. Rendered with a calm, articulated detail designed to convince the wannabes, bystanders, and curiosity-seeking outsiders who dominate the fanbase of any rapper who makes a good living at it, these tales of crime and punishment are longer on punishment than the run of the competition. In tone they recall the fictionalized Wu-Tang: An American Saga RZA Inc. sold to Hulu, including the parts where I can't remember who's who exactly and feel I'm learning something anyway. A MINUS

Pusha T: It's Almost Dry (G.O.O.D. Music/Def Jam) With us as long as Third Eye Blind and too suave by now to tolerate women who don't pronounce Lanvin the French way, he's still selling the business that "feeds the projects for most of the year" and has enough left over to buy beats from Kanye and Pharrell both ("Diet Coke," "Let the Smokers Shine the Coupes") ***

And It Don't Stop, June 8, 2022


May 11, 2022 July 13, 2022