Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Buck 65

  • Man Overboard [Anticon, 2001] A-
  • Square [WEA, 2002] A-
  • Talkin' Honky Blues [WEA, 2003] A
  • This Right Here Is Buck 65 [V2, 2005] A-
  • Secret House Against the World [WEA, 2005] B+
  • Strong Arm [buck65.com, 2006] *
  • Situation [Strange Famous, 2007] A-
  • Dirtbike [no label, 2008] B+
  • 20 Odd Years [WEA, 2011] A-
  • 20 Odd Years Volume 4: Ostranenie [Warner Music Canada, 2011] *
  • Neverlove [Warner Music Canada, 2014] ***

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Man Overboard [Anticon, 2001]
Richard Terfry from Mount Uniacke is pushing 30 now, a Derek Jeter wannabe turned Halifax hip hop godfather who did business as Stinkin' Rich before settling into this professional identity. Connoisseurs prefer 1999's Vertex, whence sprang the legendary "The Centaur" ("Sure it's larger than yours I'ma centaur for Christ's sakes," which, by the way, rhymes with "rice cakes"). But that one he cut in 48 sleepless hours; this one he pieced together gradually, and the reflection shows. Terfry doesn't believe in titles or track listings, the better to foil Morpheus and induce the listener to perceive his albums as DJed wholes, and this time he gets most of the way there. He's not deeply funky--more trip hop in spirit, even poetry-with-jazz. But the poems pack narrative logic and jokes galore whether they're justifying the album title, mourning his mom, positing a caper that requires divining rods and rosin bags, or assuming the voice of a guy older than Bob Dylan himself. A-

Square [WEA, 2002]
Where DJ Shadow decorates beats with words, Buck 65 underpins words with beats. That's why "the echoing voice of the old ones" includes substantial passages by Lord Buckley, Bill Cosby, Alfred Hitchcock, and William Burroughs. The music flows in its quietly sampled way, as it had better on CDs the artist refuses to divide into song-length tracks, but Richard Terfry's alt-rap wouldn't have much point if he wasn't at least as wise as, say, his compatriot Joni Mitchell--the young one, I mean. No question he's a nicer person. So here's predicting he'll be able to continue "The girls are desperate/But the boys are even hornier/The rose is sweet/But the stem is even thornier" into the productive adult life on which he's embarked. And that a decade from now he'll rewrite "Food" to accommodate the Malaysian, Uzbek, Senegalese, and haute French cuisines. A-

Talkin' Honky Blues [WEA, 2003]
It's hip-hop, all right, only with vocals white as Hank Snow. As this Maritime yokel turned Paris sojourner likes to say, "Street credibility--zero. Dirt road credibility--up the yin-yang." That's despite a black presence in Halifax going back to the Underground Railroad--and also despite dense, bassy beatbeds built the old-fashioned way, from handmade scratches and anonymous samples tweaked and tortured. These nods to tradition are overshadowed by his gravelly murmur, his Jimmy Stewart accent, his single steady cadence, his guitars without a trace of funk--and above all by his independence of hip-hop orthodoxy. His art wouldn't exist without hip-hop and he knows it, but it's also bigger than hip-hop, and at some level he knows that too. Begins with a boast, ends with a gun, and in between come allegories and tall tales, travel vignettes, a romantic confession of uncommon delicacy and candor, detailed first-person portraits of a perfectionist bootblack and a "roadhog with an old dog singin' slow songs tryin' to hold on." You say you want funny too? You got it. A

This Right Here Is Buck 65 [V2, 2005]
Since four standout tracks come from one of my favorite albums of the millennium, the Canada-only Talkin' Honky Blues, I have my doubts about the best-of route taken by Richard Terfry's long-delayed U.S.-major debut. Only it's not a best-of. Listening back to such worthy alt-rap cult items as Square, Vertex, and Man Overboard, I was amazed at how willowy he once sounded--a mere stripling, with a voice macho chauvinists could call nerdy even if he was a hell of a shortstop. Everything here projects his new gruff 'n' gravelly persona, including a remake of the best song in hip-hop history about a big dick (which utilizes a John Fahey-type sample rather than the electronics he has a knack for). Three are from two 2004 Canada-only EPs; another, the striking if overwrought "Cries a Girl," is now a live staple. The collection doesn't cohere the way it should, and I still say seek out Talkin' Honky Blues. But wherever you start, he's a major rhymer, performer, storyteller, humanist visionary, and student of the DJ arts. A-

Secret House Against the World [WEA, 2005]
Like most rappers, Richard Terfry sings at his peril, and like most rappers, he's better off with made beats than played ones. Nevertheless, with occasional input from Tortoise and D-Styles, he and two Halifax pals reclaim the sonic legacy of Serge Gainsbourg. His growly flow confuses Afrocentrists, and there's a chance the guy "who can't tell the difference between real art and high kitsch" will prove to be Terfry himself. But even free-associating he can outrhyme 99 percent of the spitters who've never heard of him, and every time the one about the goldfish comes up it's clear he has more stories to tell. B+

Strong Arm [buck65.com, 2006]
Richard Terfry gives his fans a mixtape ("Track One," "Track Two"). *

Situation [Strange Famous, 2007]
Timelag-wise, the 1957 concept is as if some '60s songpoet had conceived an album about Armistice Day, influenza, the Palmer raids and Mary Pickford. Only that would have been a milestone and this isn't, which you can blame on heightened aesthetic expectations rather than the potency of this Canadian rapper's literary mojo. Abandoning cabaret dalliances, Buck growls "tenfold"-"Glenn Gould" and "go study"-"Mr. Nobody" over insistent purist-plus beats. He's content to be a bohemian who knows something, like for instance who the "know-nothing bohemians" were. Beatniks, declared outraged 1958 square Norman Podhoretz, who would say the same in 2008 about Richard Terfry if he wasn't so busy bombing Iran. Podhoretz, I mean. Terfry's just bombing him. A-

Dirtbike [no label, 2008]
I value my time too much to mess with downloads on spec, but knowing me for a fan, Nova Scotian rap mutant Rich Terfry was slick enough to burn me three untracked one-hour CDs. These have been good by now for five-six spins apiece, usually as background music--as my wife will vouch, they're excellent for sharing breakfast or settling down to sleep. The beats are basic and original--dig that bluegrass, that koto, that Shadowy thrum. Ever the wordslinger, Buck is usually rhyming, and usually worth hearing when you direct your ears his way: "Hooker in a mink coat died on a Friday/Crappy UFO on the side of the highway," "Can't make sense of the menu I'm readin'/Mistakenly playin' the wrong venue in Sweden." We'll find out whether there are Real Songs here when he releases a Real Album. I just hope he salvages the 50 Cent dis 42 minutes into the second disc, where he IDs his philosophy of hip-hop as Italian neo-realism as opposed to MGM. "I created a religion based on wild misinterpretation," he raps. "Dancing is not important to me--you got a problem with that?" B+

20 Odd Years [WEA, 2011]
Beholden to nobody's scene or purist myths, the Halifax-spawned, Toronto-based, Paris-savvy cult rapper makes beats his way--drum tracks of course, this is hip-hop like it or not, but with whatever on top, which here comes down to mostly female collaborators whose sonics subsume their considerable verbal input. Plus on two standouts 65 goes it alone: the opening "Superstars Don't Love," which leads with a fearless three-syllable Jay-Z impression, and "Zombie Delight," putrefaction taffy finished off with the glorious couplet: "There's very little information and no answers./One weird thing is that they're excellent dancers!" He also covers the seminal Canadian rapper L. Cohen and finds a use for compatriot Gord Downie. Um, of the Tragically Hip? A-

20 Odd Years Volume 4: Ostranenie [Warner Music Canada, 2011]
Maybe it's me--well, almost definitely it's me--but I like him better on baseball than on romance and on album than on EP ("Joey Bats," "Legendary") *

Neverlove [Warner Music Canada, 2014]
The yoked disconnect of the rapper's hyperarticulate monotone and his female helpmeets' sweet hooks mirror the broken marriage he obsesses on ("Super Pretty Naughty," "Je T'Aime Mon Amour") ***

See Also