Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide:
Shadows in the Cave

In commercial hip hop's worst moment in years, I went spelunking, and found more good stuff than expected, with more pending and plenty of well-meaning pretension behind me.

AKROBATIK: Balance (Coup d'État) His name guest is Mr. Lif, and if that doesn't convince you this stand-up Bostonian doesn't have a clue, soon he's boasting about the "balance" he maintains between rappers who "got too many big words" and those who "bust too many slugs." Whether as vocabulary in the rathskeller or jewelry in the video, bigger is better, right? Sanity, clarity, sharp wits, efficient beats--where's the market? But just in case you're dull enough to get a buzz off articulated normality, note that he has good sexual politics, good cultural politics, and good political politics without getting preachy about any of them, and that after two plays you'll remember every hook. Right, hook. A MINUS

ELECTRIC SIX: Fire (XL) Hey, I thought our "scene" had dibs on rockin' affectation. But since Iggy invented the shit, it's only just that these Detroiters do it better--than Interpol, etc. Nukes and conflagrations, gay bars and MILF porn, discos and Taco Bells, their metaphors know no conscience and not much sense. They exist only to rock your world. If you don't let them, you're the stupid one. A MINUS

FANNYPACK: So Stylistic (Tommy Boy) In good Svengali-group fashion, they run out of material before they run out of concept, but not by much. From Belinda finding a quarter to Jessibel getting her mom to wake her up for gym, the found skits are set up by the scripted intro that climaxes, "Let's get famous. Let's get famous! LET'S GET FAMOUS!" That's the dream, and until a lawyer examines their royalty statements, it'll be all they want and the least they deserve. Three thin voices rap-sing-chant over the same bare-bones electro that sophisticates equate with two-headed dildos and black leatherette. But here, it intensifies the toughness, naïveté, moralism, sentimentality, ambition, ebullience, and sex drive all high school girls know but few have the sass to project and none have forged into art, especially with a Brooklyn accent. Imagine "I Know What Boys Like," which you remember, combined with L'Trimm, who you should look up. Both are on the mix CD their handlers sent out to beguile the press. I sure bit. A MINUS

FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE: Welcome Interstate Managers (S-Curve) Their tunes have always seemed too facile, but seven years divided by three albums doesn't equal glib, especially with those years deepening their lyricism rather than their cynicism. Failure's been good for them too, putting meat on the failures they imagine--their young drunk with a dark future in sales scares up our pity, and though their young quarterback will complete his pass, they know nobody has "All Kinds of Time." Note that the protagonist in the next song is caught in a traffic jam. If they keep going, they may even feel a few females. A MINUS

MACY GRAY: The Trouble With Being Myself (Epic) I know she's supposed to be an eccentric hipster--helps explain that grit-on-velvet voice, which seems so very outré with female pop options cut back to girlish simplicity and operatic aspiration. But except on the magnificent "I Committed Murder"--revisited here in a jokey variation that doesn't wash--her songwriting hasn't been up to the role. Now, done with that id shit, she finds her voice by pleading with her man to stay or come back as the case may be. Her big argument: "She Don't Write Songs About You." She's pretty, she's rich, she cooks, she reads, she keeps house, she gives good head. Macy will grant all that. But she don't write songs. B PLUS

LIFESAVAS: Spirit in Stone (Quannum Projects) Words come first in even the best underground hip hop. This Oregon trio leads with a sound, less catholic than that of their teachers De La Soul but still plenty absorptive--jazzlike, with a fluid Jamaican under-current. Although the record would stop dead if beats didn't switch from song to song, the same bounce brands them all. Then come the rhymes, which are witty, humane, political, all that good underground stuff (also Christian, a virtue, and speaking of virtues, anti-obscurantist). In my favorite, Vursatyl fends off annoying visits from a braggart MC ("we're 30 deep and each member's a mutant combination of six animals"), only to realize the egomaniac is himself, and a good thing too--without his secret belief that he's the greatest rapper in the universe, he couldn't be a good one. A MINUS

MCENROE: Disenfranchised (Peanuts and Corn) This Vancouver rapper and label owner takes keeping it real and writing what you know further than any other label owner would let him. In my favorite song he tracks payables and receivables and remarks existentially, "In the end we're all living off consignment." But that's not the only one where he describes how dull his life is and then makes that seem interesting. Playing and mixing keyb or guitar over cut-up drums, he thinks out loud in an utterly un-street cadence that reaches across the northland from Buck 65 to Slug out to B.C. In the end you not only feel you know this hard-working guy, you want to find out where he's going and wish him godspeed. Subsistence hip hop--can it survive? Not forever. Order some now. A MINUS

PANJABI MC: Beware (Sequence) It's 1967, you just ripped the cellophane off an Elmore James album, and for a while there you hardly know what hit you. Not until track three or four do you begin wondering whether the material is all aces, the singing everything you'd hoped. Only then, wham, up pops "Dust My Broom" or one of its cousins again. That's how it is with the best bhangra album ever to come my way. Not that the filler's just filler. Rajinder Rai knows there are more hooks and vocal flavors where "Mundian To Bach Ke" came from, and if none of them spells follow-up in God Bless Xenophobia, they'll keep interested parties going. Nevertheless, this album begins where it ends because a genre has found its signature riff. I love Rajinder Rai's version. I love Jay-Z's version. When Linkin Park does a version I'll dig that too. A MINUS

RAGGA RAGGA RAGGA! 2003 (Greensleeves) Fun as they are, these functionally carnal hard-electro hits can't compare to the eccentricities of VP's Dancehall 101, still the primer for outsiders willing to believe that Jamaican music can't be one roaring mass of dick-proud patois just because they keep forgetting the difference between Cutty Ranks and his brother Shabba. Absent are not just Shaggy-style choruses, a relief, but the extreme weirdness that marked, say, "Good Hole College" and "Coca Cola Shape." The songs same out second half, and I'll take Missy and Timbo over Beenie and Jammy in a backwards minute. But on the whole, this gets the job done. Eccentric enough are Elephant Man's "Fuck U Sign," which establishes the blunt tone early, and Vybz Kartel's Egyptian beat, as its 19 rivals on Greensleeves' Egyptian comp have already proven to the uncounted adepts who can tell them apart. A MINUS

WIDE RIGHT (Poptop) Poptop as in beer, not music. Leah Archibald runs a rock band, Jim, as down-the-middle as Mellencamp or the Iron City Houserockers. Straight-speaking voice-guitar-bass-drums is her native language, so ingrained she'd fit right in on a stoner comp if she had a touch of flash. But Wide Right don't or can't preen. They serve up none of the virtuoso macho that make down-the-middle rock fans feel better about their prospects. Some longhaired bozo vaunting his wanderlust over these arrangements would be worse than a bore. Archibald gets over by singing as who she is: a Rust Belt mom who rocks in her spare time and writes fierce breakup songs to a fickle drummer and a jerk at work. She appreciates the simple things. Foremost among them is this generic music that when you think about it is unique in history. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

SOLE: Selling Live Water (Anticon) The shortfall of this uprooted state-of-Mainer is generic. Like so many underground rappers, he's actually what his meaner and cheerier coequal Busdriver calls, less sarcastically than he thinks, a "spoken-word artist." He writes poetry designed for declamation. "Never learned to dance because I exercise the right to write," so his beats are his rhymes and meters, and his scant music more atmosphere than rhythm. From a fringe foreseen by William Gibson, sharing cheap food and living quarters with fellow spirits he doesn't entirely trust if he can stand them at all, he speaks for a disenfranchised subculture that knows, as he says in his best line, "jobs ain't nothing but free pens and long distance calls." Certainly he understands things about this society that his better-adjusted contemporaries don't. But he's woefully short on not just empathy but humorous self-deprecation. With him, "I only rap because I ain't smart enough to write a book" is a species of boast. And when he does write a book, which he will, no one will read it. B

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Sean Paul, Dutty Rock (VP/Atlantic): dancehall crossover at full-bore integrity ("Gimme the Light," "Get Busy")
  • Eek-a-Mouse, The Very Best of Eek-a-Mouse Vol. 2 (Shanachie): approximating the strangeness of the world with falsettos high and low, instrumental nonsense syllables, and always the same slow skank ("Border Patrol," "The Mouse and the Man")
  • CherryWine, Bright Black (DCide): Digable Planet as a nicer Basehead, with a healthy injection of Gary Numan ("What Im Talking," "A Street Gospel")
  • Clem Snide, Soft Spot (SpinArt): hard to maintain that rock and roll edge when you've fallen in love with a baby ("All Green," "Action")
  • Capleton, The Best of Capleton (Hip-O): at Def Jam, where he strove to combine hard, conscious, and profitable ("Raggy Road," "Wings of the Morning")
  • Toni Braxton, More Than a Woman (Arista): hell yeah--also a self-made sex object ("Lies, Lies, Lies," "Let Me Show You the Way [Out]")
  • Rasta Jamz (Razor & Tie): a/k/a Ragga Love (Mr. Vagas, "Heads High"; Super Cat, "Dolly My Baby [Hip Hop Mix]")
  • Aceyalone, Love and Hate (Decon): binary in the great polarized underground tradition--e.g., lively and tedious ("Takeoff," "Ms. Amerikkka")
  • Shaggy, Mr. Lover Lover (The Best of Shaggy . . . Part 1) (Virgin): so r&b that for incomprehensibilty's sake he outsources some patois ("Boombastic [Sting Remix]," "In the Summertime")
  • Brad Paisley, Mud on the Tires (Arista): so much command of Nashville conventions he'd fool with them as soon as feel with them ("Little Moments," "Famous People")
  • The Negatones, The Heavy E. (Melody Lanes): so much training in the sciences it makes them want to break shit up! ("Tape Machines," "Carbon Freeze")
  • A.R.E. Weapons (Rough Trade): we will, we will shoot you ("Don't Be Scared," "Hey World")
  • Richard Thompson, The Old Kit Bag (Cooking Vinyl/SpinArt): and he writes better songs than Clapton too ("Outside of the Inside," "Happy Days and Auld Lang Syne")
  • Starlight Mints, Built on Squares ([PIAS] America): more confident and relaxed in their Sgt. Pepper retro, which naturally loosens its grip ("Goldstar," "San Diego")
  • Sonny Vincent, The Good, the Bad, the Ugly (Acetate): punk lifer's ordinary songs juiced by punk lifers' extraordinary guitars ("Busted," "Flower")
  • Freeway, Philadelphia Freeway (Roc-A-Fella): "victim of the ghetto" shit at its most up-to-date ("What We Do . . . ," "Line 'Em Up")

Choice Cuts:

  • Supersuckers, "Rock-n-Roll Records (Ain't Sellin' This Year)," "Pretty Fucked Up" (Motherfuckers Be Trippin', Mid-Fi)
  • Echoboy, "Good on T.V.," "Automatic Eyes" (Giraffe, Mute)
  • Prince Paul, "So What," "Chubb Rock Can You Please Pay Paul the $2200 You Owe Him (People, Places and Things)" (Politics of the Business, Razor & Tie)
  • Joe Budden, "U Ain't Gotta Go Home," "Calm Down" (Joe Budden, Def Jam)


  • John Adams, Naive and Sentimental Music (Nonesuch)
  • Brandy, Full Moon (Atlantic)
  • Christopher O'Riley, Love Waits: Christopher O'Riley Plays Radiohead (Odyssey)
  • Shaggy, Lucky Day (MCA/Big Yard)
  • Trick Daddy, Thug Holiday (Slip-N-Slide/Atlantic)
  • Bernie Williams, The Journey Within (GRP)

Village Voice, Aug. 5, 2003

June 24, 2003 Sept. 16, 2003