Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide: Haikus and Atmospheres

For the record, I am not a true believer in "underground" hip hop. If anything (see Black Eyed Peas), I'm a bit of a skeptic. But nowhere near as much a skeptic as hip hoppers of every sect and affiliation. Boy does good stuff surface once you start looking.

ACEYALONE: Accepted Eclectic (Ground Control) Popsymp enough to consider this an improvement over the far from awful The Book of Human Language (featuring "The Balance," "The Hurt," "The Vision," etc.), I'm also streetsymp enough to hear how smug some might find the sensible moralizing and carousel hooks of "Master Your High"--and people person enough to think "Five Feet," named for the distance he wants to keep between him and you, is priggish. Still, most of these 16 tracks are sensible, moral, and hooky. And many are fun as well. Ten years a cult hero and his passion for rhyme is unabated. It would be priggish to deny him. B PLUS

ATMOSPHERE: Lucy Ford (Rhymesayers Entertainment) Although in other manifestations crew chief Slug can get ill, this one-disc double-EP collects the thoughts of an alt-rap everyman. Brooding through the long days on caffeine, nicotine, gasoline, and Ant's looped, retarded samples, the voice evokes Will Smith sans Bel Air--the Depressed Prince of South Minneapolis, clueless in his latest scrape. But Slug understands women better than most male losers, and maintains a winner's enthusiasm for his own talent. Inspirational Verse: "Some got pencils and some got guns/Some know how to stand and some of 'em run/We don't all get along but we sing the same songs/Party for the fight to write." A MINUS

AFRIKA BAMBAATAA: Looking for the Perfect Beat 1980-1985 (Tommy Boy) What's the name of this nation? Zulu, Zulu. I've never loved electro like Bam the Prophet and miss J. Lydon's "World Destruction," but here at the irreducible least are two of the greatest records of the '80s. The 1982 Arthur Baker space jam "Looking for the Perfect Beat" you know: synth figures and drum rumbles and startling scratches echoing a hooky title cadence that's varied and layered around everyday rapping--rapping that finds all the earth it needs in the patch of grass outside the rec room. Cosmic Force's "Zulu Nation Throwdown" you've maybe read about: floating over its clattering trap set and nothing-but-a-disco rhyme-trading on Lisa Lee's spunky minute of fame, it defines the inspired innocence of first-generation old-school and allows me to retire the 1980 Paul Winley 12-inch that's been my most-played vinyl since I went digital. Cosmic Force disappeared posthaste, replaced by the likable Soul Sonic Force, who pass the mic on tracks that range from competent to classic and invite James Brown and Melle Mel to the party. But I'll never forget "These are the devastating words that you never heard before/I'm Lisa Lee, huh/I got rhymes galore/So young ladies out there and from the heavens above . . . " And now here comes Chubby Chubb. Lisa Lee is gone forever, and so are her girlish ways. A MINUS

HAIKU D'ETAT (Pure Hip Hop, Inc.) Hooray for who-he? drummer Adrian Burley, mastermind of a Freestyle Fellowship-Project Blowed spinoff that slips horn and keyb cameos into a flow that's steady yet supple, catchy yet varied, live yet studio--a musicality that naturally extends to the rhymeslingers, who offset each other as well as the beats. Aceyalone's smart-ass singsong is more fun lip-by-jowl with Abstract Rude's rough edges; Mikah 9's alcoholic free-association sets up the star's righteous "Man I want money I need food/I want clothes I need housing/I want cars I need good health/I want knowledge of self I got knowledge of self." And it goes on. Worth reading along to, too. A MINUS

LE TIGRE: From the Desk of Mr. Lady (Mr. Lady) After a 34-minute art project that ended up a great album, a 17-minute EP ends up an art project. "Get Off the Internet" was overdue and "They want us to make a symphony out of the sound of women swallowing their own tongues" does us the honor of taking its title literally. But don't be so sure either will hold up like "Gone b4 yr home." Male chauvinist boyfriends are eternal. B PLUS

KIRSTY MACCOLL: Tropical Brainstorm (Instinct) Ewan's pride was always a folkie in her bones, a singer whose acute arrangements were dulled by prefunk grooves. That's why the sauciest songs on her Galore best-of sound a little fusty, and also why this Latin-inspired and -flavored return to the studio seemed like nothing to get worked up about. (Remember Rei Momo? By David Byrne? Right.) Making no claims for the clave of her same old Brit backing guys, she soars like she never has anyway. She always had attitude, but whether she's stalking a fan gone "to a record store/To buy a CD by some other girl not me" or walking all over some Limey masochist in her most impractical shoes, these songs are so loose and raunchy they live the carnival cliche of life-giving rhythm "Mambo de la Luna" stakes its video on. The saxophone-and-autoharp finale is a return to foggy London town even though most of the album takes place there, the non-Latin bonus tracks are letdowns, and MacColl's death in the Caribbean last December hurts every time she ai-yi-yis about what a slut she turned out to be. A MINUS

MARIA MULDAUR: Richland Woman Blues (Stony Plain import) Too old to waste time bragging, too wise to want any more macho mess, Muldaur finds title, lead, and persona for this Memphis Minnie tribute in a well-loved classic by gentle John Hurt. It beats her '60s cover if not the original, as does the pliant, weathered "Me and My Chauffeur." Sticking to underexposed blues songs and aided by a lifetime's worth of friends--Amos Garrett taking Lead Belly to the Delta, Angela Strehli working a "cooperation plan," Alvin Youngblood Hart as Minnie's good old Kansas Joe--she turns in the best record of her undiminished lifetime. When was the last time anyone in Marin County wrote a line to match "Gon' bring you some money if I have to pawn my pants"? A MINUS

CHIEF STEPHEN OSITA OSADEBE AND HIS NIGERIAN SOUNDMAKERS: Sound Time (IndigeDisc) Politer musically and craftier lyrically than the rival Oriental Brothers, lacking his great hit "Osondi Owendi," shorter on charm if not tune than his live '96 one-off, and you won't care. These seven '70-'85 tracks, none under six minutes and one pushing 20, are as close as any American is liable to come to the rambling shambling genius of a bespectacled little careerist who has made Ibo highlife his fastness for 30 years. No non-Ibo will detect the worlds of homily, satire, and flattery here without consulting a scorecard. We'll just hear the palm-wine sweetness, the edge-of-the-forest chatter, the flow everlasting. A MINUS

THE ROUGH GUIDE TO BHANGRA (World Music Network import) "No padding, no `fillers,'" boast the notes. But "not every great bhangra band or artist is represented," apologizes the dedication. Which leaves the "You don't need to understand the words" part up in the air. Because we do need to understand the groove. And in the absence of sure-shot hooks, understanding comes easier to non-Punjabi speakers in the U.K., the epicenter of the Indian diaspora, where this voracious dance style links Bollywood kitchen-sink to a village thrust that long ago fused with the industrial pulse of the global metropolis. Never previously drawn to more than a stray track or two, I count this meant-to-be-definitive collection thusly: first three hits that pass all understanding, final three so fierce they need only get started, middle seven pretty engaging for a groove and language not one's own. A MINUS

UNSUNG HEROES: Unleashed (75 Ark) When underground rappers talk true to their school they mean they got no new beats, and unlike the great punk bands, they're rarely delighted enough by the old ones. Making no claims on anyone else's truth or roots, this U.K.-based transatlantic consortium achieves no-school simplicity freshly and effectively--with slantwise piano figures, brief guitar riffs, solid bass lines, and well-aimed scratches and samples that evoke DJ Premier and get a shout-out from Roy Ayers. The raps, a dozen or so voices pursuing a single understated aesthetic, also stick to the basics. Check the opener, in which thwarted legend Rob-O explains/demonstrates why/how he's "Magnificent," and proceed. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

BLACK EYED PEAS: Bridging the Gap (Interscope) "Refusing to preach about politics, guns and bitches," as one admirer puts it ("Thankfully there's no inkling of misogyny or homophobia--how refreshing!"), these well-meaners are the Jurassic Five's answer to Arrested Development. Proficient, bland, and dauntingly dull, their only threat is a promise to "take it back to the days of Mantronix" (no, please, anything but that). I can only guess why they clock corporate cash while accessible and manifestly civilized West Coast alt-rap megatalents like Lyrics Born, Del, and Aceyalone explore bootstrap entrepreneurship. Maybe they lucked into connected management. Maybe they take good meeting. Or maybe their very lack of content has the advantage of cosseting the commercial preconceptions that count for so much more with sellers than buyers. B MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Solesides Greatest Bumps (Quannum Projects): DJ Shadow and friends show off their goods and their greats, including the better half of that Latyrx album you slept on (Blackalicious, "Swan Lake"; the Gift of Gab, "Rhyme Like a Nut!"; Lateef the Truth Speaker, "Lateef's Freestyle")
  • Cappadonna, The Yin and the Yang (Epic/Razor Sharp): he wants God in your life--or does he really mean Gods? ("Love Is the Message," "Super Model")
  • Etta James, Matriarch of the Blues (Private Music): best tracks courtesy of patriarchs Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards ("Gotta Serve Somebody," "Miss You")
  • Amy Ray, Stag (Daemon): womyn's heroyne yndulges hyr ynner gyrrrl ("Lucystoners," "Johnny Rottentail")
  • The Butchies, 3 (Mr. Lady): sometimes I wish their lyrics crunched and played like their guitars, and sometimes I wish their guitars crunched and played ("For Kay," "Huh Huh Hear")
  • Sam Mangwana, Sam Mangwana Sings Dino Vangu (Stern's Africa): old rumba master's new songs, meaning neoclassicism that misses on one cylinder ("Escrobondo," "Ibrahim")
  • Marvin Gaye, What's Going On (Deluxe Edition) (Motown): "alternate Detroit mix" useless, concert version hornier and less strung up ("Head Title," "Sixties Medley: That's the Way Love Is/You/I Heard It Through the Grapevine/Little Darling [I Need You]/You're All I Need to Get By/Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing/Your Precious Love/Pride and Joy/Stubborn Kind of Fellow")
  • Maria Muldaur, Music for Lovers (Telarc): the old torch songs are the best ("Gee Baby, Ain't I Good to You," "I Wanna Be Loved")
  • Rae & Christian, Blazing the Crop (DMC): Mancunian groovemasters sneak Brit hip hop into Yank underground flow (Swollen Members, "S & M on the Rocks"; Mr. Scruff, "Get a Move On")
  • Jeff Beck, You Had It Coming (Epic): blues yes, drum and bass yes, rock mostly, "jazz" good riddance ("Earthquake," "Dirty Mind")
  • The Gossip, Thats Not What I Heard (Kill Rock Stars): "Honey ain't no woman like a Southern girl," declares Arkansan female now residing in Northwest bohemia ("Swing Low," "Southern Comfort")
  • Crossfaderz: Roc Raida of the X-Ecutioners (Moonshine Music): a dream of hip hop radio without hooks or hits (the Arsonists, "The Session"; East Flatbush Project, "Tried by 12"; "Backpack Rapper")
  • The Donnas, The Donnas Turn 21 (Lookout): skank hos get fucked ("Midnite Snack," "Police Blitz")
  • Rammstein, Mutter (Republic): pretty funny, especially if you can't get enough jokes about classical music ("Speilhur," "Links")
Choice Cuts:
  • Roland Alphonso, "El Pussy Cat Ska (Take 2)," "Jack Ruby," "From Russia With Love" (Something Special: Ska Hot Shots, Heartbeat)
  • The Pharcyde, "Trust" (Plain Rap, Edel)
  • Broadcast, The Noise Made by People (Tommy Boy)
  • Tracy Chapman, Telling Stories (Elektra)
  • Swamp Dogg, The Re-Invention of Swamp Dogg (S.D.E.G.)
  • Ute Lemper, Punishing Kiss (Decca)
  • Rae & Christian, Sleepwalking (!K7)
  • Rainer Maria, A Better Version of Me (Polyvinyl)

Village Voice, May 1, 2001

Apr. 3, 2001 June 5, 2001