Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

I've always had my doubts about the notion of the hip hop "community" or "subculture"--too easy to claim, too hard to verify empirically. But the eight multiartist comps below, only two of them Honorable Mentions, must prove something.

BEATS & RHYMES: HIP HOP OF THE '90S, PART I (Rhino) Between 1990, when old school went emeritus, and 1992, when gangsta stuck daisy age's pistil up its stamen, came a nondescript downtime that Rhino maps without recourse to rap crossovers, which meant less than nothing to the loyalists who were just then insisting that what they loved was called "hip hop." But though all three volumes are pretty subtle for nonloyalists, only here are the high points obvious--hits from key Jungle Brothers and A Tribe Called Quest albums, BDP's "Love's Gonna Get'cha"--and the selections from minor figures like Special Ed, Def Jef, and K-Solo open to challenge from the likes of me (I nominate "Taxin'," "Fa Sho Shot," and "Tales From the Crack Side"). Even so I love the YZ, Poor Righteous Teachers, and D.O.C. tracks, not to mention the BDP radio edit with sound effects where the bleeps should be. I also love Cold Chillin''s "Erase Racism." B PLUS

BEATS & RHYMES: HIP HOP OF THE '90S, PART II (Rhino) Meet and greet such subculturally certified rhymesmiths as Leaders of the New School, Organized Konfusion, Main Source, the UMC's, and the oft-odious DJ Quik. Plus, for some reason, three predictably solid Chubb Rock tracks. Plus minor hits from Rakim, Lyte, and Run-D.M.C. Think wordplay not signification. Think beats not hooks. Go with their flows. A MINUS

BEATS & RHYMES: HIP HOP OF THE '90S, PART III (Rhino) This bumps along for eight tracks distinguished by two new to me--Lord Finesse's "Return of the Funky Man" ("you're softer than baby shit") and Double X Posse's "Not Gonna Be Able To Do It" ("I'm not gonna be able to do")--before vaulting off Naughty by Nature and A Tribe Called Quest into four consecutive guaranteed great, hilarious records: Del Tha Funkee Homosapien's Three Stooges bit, Humpty Hump's nose, the Pharcyde's dozens, and FU-Schnickens' advertisement for Jive Records, which has steadfastly kept their catalogue in print. Then Romy-Dee expands the legend of funky Kingston. A MINUS

THE CORRUPTOR (Jive) Obsessed with death, declaring 1985 the Golden Age, counterbalancing two pieces of pimp shit with two pieces of ho fuck you, these tough, articulate third-generation voices document a gangsta myth innocent of all hope. Nostalgic credo: "When niggaz keep their weapons concealed it's all real." Guys, that much could happen. Maybe it's already started. B PLUS

HOUND DOG TAYLOR: A TRIBUTE (Alligator) The natural evolution of chops and technology renders this inauspicious vehicle the best houserocking record by anyone since the honored slidemaster, who died in 1975 leaving his Houserockers to bequeath their name to a boogie blues style never truly replicated. Bigger and faster than the prototype, which is fun, it lets virtuosos-in-spite-of-themselves give free rein to their baser natures: flash-fingered Luther Allison, Sonny Landreth, Dave Hole, and Warren Haynes come on every bit as crude as neoprimitives George Thorogood, Elvin Bishop, and Cub Koda. Respect to Vernon Reid and Alvin Youngblood Hart for powering up acoustic. Shame on Ronnie Earl for showing off. A MINUS [Later]

LIGHTNING OVER THE RIVER (Music Club) Although compiler Christina Roden rightly distinguishes between speed soukous and the old bipartite kind that gives the singer some, the thunderbolts she catches in her bottle are all thrown by guitarists. Admirers of Kanda Bongo Man, Tshala Muana, and especially Syran M'Benza (Symbiose, two tracks) may find a few selections familiar. More likely, however, they'll just own them. Even for Afropop fans, an enjoyable tour of a terrain that tends to blur into itself without a guide. A MINUS

RANDY NEWMAN: Bad Love (DreamWorks) After an annuity's worth of soundtracks, a box stuffed with marginalia, and Faust, his first true album since 1988 finds him more cynical than ever, about himself above all. Having called one cheap joke "I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It)," he explains the belated tribute to the wife and family he kissed off in the '70s with a simple "I'd sell my soul and your souls for a song," then announces: "But I wanted to write you one/Before I quit/And this one's it." Thing is, cheap jokes and cynicism have always been his gift to the world, and when he's on he can twist the knife. In joke mode, cf. not only "I'm Dead," so anti-Randy it'll have young yahoos saying amen like they just discovered Mahalia Jackson, but two of his cruelest political songs ever: one a history of early imperialism where the punch line is HIV, another addressed with dulcet malice to Mr. Karl Marx. For cynicism, try "My Country," which might just be about his family too, and "Shame," where Newman plays a hateful old hard-on indistinguishable from himself. Twisting his croak a turn further are the most articulate arrangements of his singer-songwriting life: jazzlike, but in a piano-based rock context that shifts at a moment's notice to any voicing (Hollywood-symphonic, country march, pop-schlock) that might reshade a meaning or make the ear believe what the mind can't stand. There are a few ringers. But the last time he was so strong in this mode he was married to the wife he misses. A

RAWKUS PRESENTS SOUNDBOMBING II (Rawkus) Whoever's representing--Medina Green eating crosstown beef or Eminem tripping on a minivan or Company Flow dissing AmeriKKKa or Pharoahe Monch toasting the mayor or "hairy fat slob unshaven" R.A. the Rugged Man conjoining his "white trash nation" with "all the starvin' artists"--the Rawkus subculture is always peering over its own edge. The beats aren't invariably propulsive, but they never relent, with timeouts for DJs to scratch themselves minimized. Although the us-against-society mood is far from asexual, nobody macks and nobody flosses. Nobody deals either. Racism is an issue, race isn't. In our present-day dystopia, no wonder so many make this imaginary world their home. A MINUS

RUFFHOUSE RECORDS GREATEST HITS (Ruffhouse) The Miseducation, Score, and Cypress Hill lifts have their own lives. "Insane in the Brain" is worth hearing twice. "Fuck Compton" is history. Kriss Kross weren't always has-beens. Nas wasn't always nasty. John Forté and Pace Won have their own futures. Few labels have done '90s hip hop so proud. A MINUS

SLICK RICK: The Art of Storytelling (Def Jam) The music on this unflappably deft comeback is unlayered, highlighting spare beats with simple scratches or vocal sound effects to showcase the feyly effeminate king's-honeydrip singsong that's been identifiable at 50 yards since "La-Di-Da-Di." Mostly he boasts about how pretty he is and how good he raps, proving the latter with cameos from such modern-day flowmasters as Raekwon, Nas, Snoop, and Big Boi. He plays his prison card by trumping the two-line auditions from the wannabes who serenade him as he walks to freedom with "Kill Niggaz," which describes a fictional crime spree far deadlier than the attack he got sent up for. And he writes about fucking with the detailed relish of someone who's read a lot of pornography. A MINUS

DON WHITE: Brown Eyes Shine (Lumperboy) White gigs every weekend, mostly tiny folk venues and "private shows"--gather some friends in your rec room and he'll make it worth everybody's while. Yet though he lives just 220 miles away, he hasn't hit Manhattan since 1996, because his wife says he has to come home with more money in his pocket than when he left. And come home he does. Thus he stands as the only folkie I can think of who's never footloose or romantically bereft--his subject matter, most of it autobiographical, is domestic, focusing here on parent-teen relationships after a debut about marriage proper. The monologue where his brain explodes after a homework discussion with his 14-year-old can only be understood by someone who's been there, and anyone who's been there will immediately play it again. With or without his band he's a strained singer with an unmediated New England accent and barely a guitarist at all, and when he isn't funny he's corny. But usually he's original enough to turn corny into a virtue. A MINUS

DWIGHT YOAKAM: Last Chance for a Thousand Years: Dwight Yoakam's Greatest Hits from the 90's (Reprise) Whenever I ponder this multithreat singer-songwriter, honky-tonk ideologue, Hollywood role-player, published author, and hunk-if-you-like-your-meat-lean, I remember what Sharon Stone said about the prospects for their reunion: "I'd rather eat a dirt sandwich." Normally with country music you swallow the male chauvinism and figure guys feeling sorry for themselves is what makes it go; with Yoakam, so talented and so conscious, you expect a little movement within the paradigm, and conclude that he chose neotrad because movement was the last thing on his mind. But even if his most romantic moment is the Waylon cover where he goes back to his old lady because his new lady was playing games, he's sung and written his way into the male chauvinist canon. His best song of the '90s, for its heartbroke melody: 1990's "The Heart That You Own." Latest rock cover: the finale, Queen's "Crazy Little Thing Called Love." He "just can't handle it," "must get 'round to it," etc. Right, Dwight. Or is that just Dirtbag? A MINUS

Dud of the Month

NAS: I Am . . . (Columbia) Nas covers his ahzz. If in one song he's "wetting" (lovely word) "any nigga" (another) his fellow playa Scarface doesn't like, in another he's fomenting revolution: "Combine all the cliques and make one gang." Yeah sure. The question is how convincing he is, and only two themes ring true: the bad ones, revenge and money. His idea of narrative detail is to drop brand names like Bret Easton Ellis; his idea of morality is everybody dies. Ghostface Killa's "Wildflower" is far more brutal than the she-cheated-while-I-was-playin "Undying Love," and far less bloody; Biggie's "Playa Hater" is far more brutal than the Wu-Puff cameo "Hate Me Now," and far more humorous. Blame his confusion and bad faith on a conscience that's bothered him ever since he bought into the Suge Knight ethos. I've never met a ho in my life. This kind of sellout starts with a "W." B MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Terry Allen, Salivation (Sugar Hill): for an artist, a pretty good songwriter and a fine village atheist ("X-Mas on the Isthmus," "Salivation") [Later: ***]
  • The Scruffs, Midtown (Northern Heights): it's Memphis, it's the '80s, and darn it, Big Star lives ("Machiavellian Eyes," "Judy [She Put the Devil in Me]")
  • M People, Testify (Epic): four years later, 13 new tracks including five remixes--who do they think they are, Sade? ("What a Fool Believes," "Testify")
  • Brad Paisley, Who Needs Pictures (Arista Nashville): there's words in that there cowboy hat ("He Didn't Have To Be," "Me Neither")
  • Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince, Greatest Hits (Jive): the antigangsta, as only a master of light comedy could render him ("Summertime," "Lovely Daze")
  • Ginuwine, 100% Ginuwine (550 Music): thump, bump, hump ("Final Warning," "No. 1 Fan")
  • Profilin': The Hits (Arista): beyond "It Takes Two" and "It's Like That," which nobody considering this purchase doesn't own, long on novelty (Poor Righteous Teachers, "Rock Dis Funky Joint"; N2Deep, "Back to the Hotel")
  • Maria Muldaur, Meet Me Where They Play the Blues (Telarc): last of the red hot mamas ("Soothe Me," "It Ain't the Meat, It's the Motion")
  • The Robert Cray Band, Take Your Shoes Off (Rykodisc): T-Bone Walker as Jerry Butler, only not as good ("There's Nothing Wrong," "What About Me")
  • M-Boogie, Laid in Full (Blackberry): here comes the West Coast underground, sunnier than the East Coast underground (Kut Master Kurt Presents Masters of Illusion Featuring Motion Man, "Magnum Be I"; Rasco Featuring Defaro & Evidence, "Major League")
  • L7, Live Omaha to Osaka (Man's Ruin): "It's a long way to stay where you are in rock and roll," and also, "L7 would rather be with you people here tonight in Omaha than with some of the finest people in the world" ("Shitlist," "Lorenza, Giada, Allessandra")
  • The Gospel According to Earthworks (Stern's/Earthworks): joy to the world music, South African style (Makholwa Vumani Isono, "Izikhova Ezimnqini"; Holy Spirits Choir,"Siyakubonga")
  • The Cardigans, Gran Turismo (Stockholm/Mercury): with a hit on their resume, they're free to be the depressed Swedes they always were ("Paralyzed," "Do You Believe")
Choice Cuts:
  • The Go-Betweens, "Karen" (78 'til 79: The Lost Album, Jetset)
  • Stereo Total, "Get Down Tonight" (Stereo Total, Bobsled)
  • Eric Cartman, "Come Sail Away" (Chef Aid: The South Park Album, American)
  • Joey Sweeney, "My Name Is Rich" (The Book of Life Soundtrack, Echostatic)
  • The GrooveGrass Boyz, GrooveGrass 101 (Reprise)
  • Ice Cube, War and Peace (Priority)
  • Pras, Ghetto Supastar (Ruffhouse)
  • Snakefarm, Songs From My Funeral (RCA)
  • Vengaboys, The Party Album! (Groovilicious)

Village Voice, June 22, 1999

May 18, 1999 July 27, 1999