Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide:
Hit It, Now Hold It

Bearing down on hip hop, with plenty left undone, some of it fairly terrific, I believe or hope. FYI, I'm holding the Tribe Called Quest best-of till Christmas, which is pretty much what it feels like to me.

CAPE VERDE (Putumayo World Music) Trust the escape merchants at the. world's softest world label to put a happy face on saudade--the tempos a little quicker, the melodies a little brighter. Still, it's not like these musicians are trying to get the party started, increase efficiency in the workplace, or reduce sales resistance to clothing bought cheap and sold dear--not that they know of, anyway. They're just confronting the sense of loneliness and loss built into "the romance of these remote and exotic islands." And maybe because they're beginning to feel it's too easy to hold their cultural heritage at bay by correctly pronouncing one of its many names, they're beating it, honestly if temporarily. Good for them. A MINUS

MARSHALL CRENSHAW: #447 (Razor & Tie) Although Crenshaw likes to call his g-b-d trio rockabilly, he's not above keybs, gives a fiddler one, and weaves in three instrumentals that are anything but filler--mood-setting rock and roll lounge music, melodic and contemplative. On an album that negotiates the awkward transition from superannuated teen to balding homebody, the two well-crafted infidelity songs don't altogether mesh with the two well-crafted I-should-have-loved-you-better songs. The masterstroke is "Glad Goodbye," which passes for the world's millionth breakup song while addressing a much rarer theme: a couple, both of 'em, dumping a home and a physical history they no longer love. A MINUS

DREAM WARRIORS: Anthology: A Decade of Hits 1988-1998 (Priority) Eight years ago, these black Canadians put out a well-liked album that missed the tail end of Daisy Age. Then they vanished. Gang Starr and Digable Planets connections got their next CD a token U.S. release, but the one after was strictly commonwealth--as far as the south-of-the-border rap community was concerned, King Lu and Capital Q no longer existed. So maybe nobody told them that you claim street no matter how middle-class you are, that jazz samples were a doomed fad, that Digable Planets blinked out faster than the evening star. And maybe that was good. Probably it didn't feel like that to them; one of their best songs is called "I've Lost My Ignorance," and I'm sure the disillusion hurt. But though their inspiration wanes slightly, they never surrender their thoughtful intricacy or race-man lyricism. Certainly they belong in the same sentence as De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. And "Test of Purity" is the best song about nasty sex a nasty music has ever produced--in part because it's so explicit, in part because it's so imaginative, in part because it's so kind. A MINUS [Later]

CESARIA EVORA: Café Atlantico (Lusafrica/RCA Victor/BMG Classics) I'm happy to report that Shoeless Cesaria reports herself happy. She likes being a star, and is proud to have spread the fame of her native land--now officially redesignated, in the soupiest thing here, an "Atlantic Paradise." To celebrate, she sells out big time, and does it ever suit her--her Brazilian concertmaster's swirling strings ruin only one of five tracks, and the kora, bolero, and danzon are all to the good. Meanwhile, over on the arty side, two previously unrecordeds from her twenties are bright standouts, and the lyric booklet is full of surprises. Never got her and wondered if you were worse for it? Why not start here? A MINUS

GANG STARR: Full Clip: A Decade of Gang Starr (Virgin) A longtime agnostic in re Guru and Premier except as regards the former's ill-advised Roy Ayers-Donald Byrd trip, I'm grateful for this exemplary compilation. For anybody wondering what "flow" can mean, Guru's smooth, unshowy delivery, cool in its confident warmth and swift without ever burying words or betraying rush, is one ideal, and Premier's steady drums 'n' bass, just barely touched by anything that would pass for a hook, undergird his groove with discretion and power. My problem has always been the music's formalism--the way it encouraged adepts to bask in skillful sounds and rhymes that abjure commerce and tough-guyism. But reducing five albums to two CDs not only ups the pop density, as you'd expect, but achieves variety by jumbling chronology and mixing in B sides and soundtrack one-offs that weren't cut to any album's flow. It's a credit to the duo's constancy that the result plays like a single release. And despite his occasional bad-girl tales and images of sexual submission, Guru's quiet rectitude and disdain for a street rhetoric whose reality he's seen make him a chronicler everybody can learn from. A MINUS

GENASIDE II: Ad Finite (Durban Poison) Filtering Gil Scott-Heron through Linton Kwesi Johnson and Bernard Herrmann through Richard Wagner, guesting an imprisoned dancehall boomer on one track and a certified operatic contralto on the next, this Prodigy/Chems/Tricky-beloved brand name has more scope and punch than most trip hop, or whatever it is. And it holds together like--well, not Wagner probably, but at least Shadow. Unaccustomed as I am to thrilling to fake strings, I thrill to these. And not just because I've been boomed into submission, I don't think. A MINUS

ARTO LINDSAY: Prize (Righteous Babe) Although he'll never make as much money at it as the samba masters he takes after, Lindsay's jeu d'esprit has turned modus operandi. He seems fully capable of an album like this every year or two: a dozen or so songpoems in English or Portugese, floating by on the sinuous current and spring-fed babble of a Brazilian groove bent, folded, spindled, and mutilated by the latest avant-dance fads and electronic developments. The weak link is the poetry, which wouldn't be as much fun as the music even if it was as well-realized. The selling point is the fads and developments, and the faux-modest singing that renders them so organic. A MINUS

PAUL MCCARTNEY: Run Devil Run (Capitol) I don't want to call McCartney the most complacent rock and roller in history. The competition's way too stiff, especially up around his age, and anyway, I'm not judging his inner life, only his musical surface. From womp-bom-a-loo-mom to monkberry moon delight, his rockin' soul and pop lyricism always evinced facility, not feeling, and his love songs were, as he so eloquently put it, silly. This piece of starting-over escapism isn't like that at all, as, robbed of the wife he loved with all his heart, McCartney returns to the great joy of his adolescence in a literally death-defying formal inversion. So light it's almost airborne, Gene Vincent's "Blue Jean Baby" opens; so wild it's almost feral, Elvis Presley's "Party" closes. Some familiar titles are merely redone or recast, which beyond some Chuck Berry zydeco gets him nowhere. But arcana like Fats Domino's "Coquette" and Carl Perkins's "Movie Magg" could have been born yesterday, three originals dole out tastes of strange, and on two successive slow sad ones, the Vipers' hung-up obscurity "No Other Baby' and Ricky Nelson's lachrymose hit "Lonesome Town," the impossibility of the project becomes the point. Teenagers know in some recess of their self-involvement that their angst will have a next chapter, but McCartney's loneliness is permanent. Not incurable--the music is a kind of new life. But its fun is a spiritual achievement McCartney's never before approached. A MINUS

MOS DEF: Black on Both Sides (Rawkus) "Building it now for the promise of the infinite," Black Star's star overreaches; delete the right tracks, which is always the catch, and his solo CD would pack more power at 55 minutes than it does at 71. I hope someday he learns that what made Chuck Berry better than Elvis Presley wasn't soul, even if that rhymes with rock and roll the way Rolling Stones rhymes with (guess who he prefers) Nina Simone. But the wealth of good-hearted reflection and well-calibrated production overwhelms one's petty objections. "New World Water" isn't just the political song of the year, it's catchy like a motherfucker. "Brooklyn" and "Habitat" are no less geohistorical because they act locally. B PLUS [Later: A-]

THE SPIRIT OF CAPE VERDE (Tinder) Heard in the background, as quiet world-music comps usually are, the saudade here can be vaguely annoying, like somebody unburdening her troubles out of earshot across the room. Listen close, however, and the melancholy seems so deeply imbued it's as if 300,000 islanders had been lulled to sleep by Billie Holiday before they learned to speak. Though it lapses into the genteel sentimentality that mushes up too much samba, there's a little more muscle to the music's technical intricacy and sensual pulse. And if your attention flags, be sure to come back for the farewell instrumental, cut 30 years before sadness became the nation's cash crop. At two minutes and 12 seconds, it's primal. B PLUS

TRICKY WITH DJ MUGGS AND GREASE: Juxtapose (Island) As always with Tricky, the right idea for pop isn't necessarily just right for him. Beats, of course; songs, sure; a band, who could say no? And right, individual tracks connect pretty good--hot lesbian porn, you devil you. Yet though his soundscapes be obscure and forbidding, they're what he's great at; his rap affinities and rock dreams are off the point, especially in the studio. So the best thing about these shapely selections is that they remain obscure and forbidding as they stand up and announce themselves. Second-best is their scorn for criminal pretensions, always a boon from a borderline nihilist. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

PUFF DADDY: Forever (Bad Boy) Nobody who didn't want money from him ever said he could rap, but he did have a spirit and a community, both now gone--one because it's harder to stay human on top than to act human getting there, the other because anointing Biggie your coproducer doesn't make him any less gone. Wallowing in otiose thug fantasies and bathetic hater-hating, hiring big names who collect their checks and go, he is indeed hateful if not altogether devoid of musical ideas. And for inducing a cute-sounding little-sounding girl to pronounce the words "hit-makin', money-havin', motherfuckin' pimp" he should be taken to Family Court. C PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Chuck D Presents Louder Than a Bomb (Rhino): exhortations and commonplaces, old school style (Common Sense, "I Used To Love H.E.R. [Radio Edit]"; Ice Cube, "A Bird in the Hand")
  • No More Prisons (Raptivism): convicts not gangstas, agitrap not CNN (Hurricane G, "No More Prisons"; dead prez & Hedrush, "Murda Box"; Daddy-O, "Voices")
  • Luna, The Days of Our Nights (Sire): still a casualty of capitalism--not downsized, but privatized ("Sweet Child o' Mine," "U.S. Out of My Pants!")
  • ZZ Top, XXX (RCA): meaning of title: very, very dirty (sounding) ("Fearless Boogie," "Beatbox")
  • Eve, Ruff Ryder's First Lady (Ruff Ryders/Interscope): dogs can't leave that woman alone ("Heaven Only Knows," "My B******," "Love Is Blind")
  • The Roots, Come Alive (MCA): world-class DJ and beatbox, excellent drummer and bassist, pretty darn good rapper(s), bourgie jazzmatazz ("Proceed," "Love of My Life")
  • Wilson Pickett, It's Harder Now (Bullseye Blues & Jazz): so wicked it's hard to believe he consented to, ugh, "Soul Survivor"--which opens his show ("What's Under That Dress," "Taxi Love")
  • New Groove 3: Déconstruire le groove esoterique (REV): at long last acid jazz (Swoon, "Pomegranate garrote"; Henri Lim, "Aria [Ether Edit]")
  • Harold Budd & Hector Zazou, Glyph (Made to Measure/Freezone import): downtown minimalism meets ambient techno meets the Algerian half of (how could you forget?) Zazou Bikaye ("The Aperture," "As Fast as I Could Look Away She Was Still There")
  • Public Enemy, There's a Poison Goin On . . . (Atomic Pop): hating playas is fine, hating play amn't ("41:19," "What What")
  • Rahzel, Make the Music 2000 (MCA): having fun with the human beatbox (and friends) in the studio (and on stage) ("Southern Girl," "Night Riders")
  • The High & Mighty, Home Field Advantage (Rawkus): plenty to boast about, less to be proud of ("The Weed," "The B-Document")
  • Ronnie Spector, She Talks to Rainbows (Kill Rock Stars): pop queen or punk symbol, she comes direct from the land of dreams ("You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory," "She Talks to Rainbows").
Choice Cuts:
  • Art Blakey & Thelonious Monk, "Blue Monk (Alternate Take)," "Evidence (Alternate Take)" (Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers With Thelonious Monk, Rhino/Atlantic)
  • Ice-T, "Always Wanted To Be a Hoe" (The 7th Deadly Sin, Coroner/Atomic Pop) [Later: C+]
  • DMX, "Ruff Ryders' Anthem," "Stop Being Greedy" (It's Dark and Hell Is Hot, Def Jam)
  • Type O Negative, "Day Tripper (Medley)" (World Coming Down, RoadRunner)
  • Ruff Ryders, "What Ya Need" (Ryde or Die Volume 1, Ruff Ryders/Interscope)
  • Company Flow, Little Johnny From the Hospital (Rawkus)
  • DMX, Flesh of My Flesh Blood of My Blood (Def Jam)
  • The Evil Tambourines, Library Nation (Sub Pop)
  • Paris Combo (Tinder)

Village Voice, Nov. 9, 1999

Oct. 26, 1999 Nov. 16, 1999