Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

January 2008: Babyshambles, Ghostface Killah, Rilo Kiley Get High Marks
Chuck D, Ponytail, Soulja Boy and Wu-Tang Clan All Make the Dean's List As Well

Christmas comes but once a year, and sometimes it seems like the best hip-hop albums do, too. In the worst year for hip-hop since the last bad year for hip-hop, one Staten Island crew came up with two December winners, and there's later stuff I hadn't heard at press time. Maybe next month, I'll even get to those Lil Wayne mixtapes.


Babyshambles: Shotter's Nation (Astralwerks) People put up with Pete Doherty because he's capable of melodies so endearing that his beleaguered band falls into place around them. Then he falls down on top of the band. I know nothing about what drugs he took here and oppose them pre-emptively anyway. But claiming there's no music on his best album since the Libertines' debut would just be a lie. Seems wispy until you concentrate because--unlike that debut, which it otherwise resembles--there's no punk propulsion to power the music over its own vagaries. But once again its vagaries are its distinction. Doherty makes a case for flat-on-your-ass alienation in an insane wartime culture. But please, don't go out with him. Kate Moss can fend for herself. A MINUS

Ghostface Killah: The Big Doe Rehab (Def Jam) By dint of hard work, Ghost now has him a minor career as the classiest crime story writer in a genre that supports plenty of them. His narratives aren't especially coherent or economical, but are they detailed. "The way I fell cracked the face of my watch." "I know n****z with crack vials stuck to their colon." Like that. Although he's all about the Benjamins that provide the design motif, I believe the stories are fictions. One tipoff is that right after "White Linen Affair"'s priceless "What an awards show, there's Kanye West/Pamela Anderson and she brought both of them breasts," he gets a piece of Alicia Keys--although I grant that the same song's "Don't steal my ashtrays" sounds pretty authentic. A MINUS

The Peeps of Soulfunk: Tribb to JB (Slamjamz) Chuck D or no Chuck D, an album of James Brown covers has built-in limitations, the inexhaustibility of the originals prominent among them. But the live band proves equal to Brown's grooves, and hip-hop established his adaptability long ago. So the record respects the man enough to interpret and even amend him. Here be prologues and scratches, a woman giving "Man's World" what for and an elementary-school girl reciting "King Heroin." Best of all, here be a "Make It Funky" that names as many of Mr. Brown's works and disciples as Chuck can fit in. B PLUS

Ponytail: Kamehameha (Creative Capitalism) From B-more, careening off the shimmering artsy guitar compositions and blatting artsy guitar noises of Dustin Wong's "Ecstatic Sunshine," comes 26 minutes of kiddie-pop hardcore no wave assault/playground game/initiation ritual fronted by the reportedly tiny young Molly Siegel tinily shrieking what the band claims to be lyrics even though only Siegel knows what they are (we hope). If you're thinking Deerhoof, so have others, all of whom are wrong. If you're thinking annoying brats, they could make you testy. They make me chuckle, in amusement and aesthetic delight. A MINUS

Rilo Kiley: Under the Blacklight (Warner Bros.) Terse and beaty, with Dr. Dre referral Mike Elizondo going half on the baby, this isn't a pop record, but it does avoid guitar-band shapes, sonics and truisms. Blake Sennett's pretty Fleetwood Mac homage proves densely political, and though Jenny Lewis isn't writing fluff, she might consider some porn in the right venue for the right advance. Makes you wonder just what teenager was "down for almost anything," what adult is getting "money for sex." Leaves little doubt that it's Jenny's tail you can chase and tongue you can taste in the Spanish one, Jenny who removes her bra and smokes in bed in the sexy(est) one. The tender title tune casts her as a "black widow," and the tender-sounding opener is a breakup song as triumphant as "Breakin' Up" itself. "Ooh, it feels good to be free," she exults, with girl backup. It's possible she means it. A

Soulja Boy: Souljaboytellem.com (ColliPark Music/Interscope) Boy do the haters get busy on this 16-year-old. But scrutinize the "superman" matter (look it up) and you'll see that even if he thought he was sneaking something outlandishly filthy onto a pop record, his fans thought he was inventing a dance that involved flying, thus furthering the presumption of innocence so crucial to his cute. Unlike his crunk forebears, he's not into pimping or dealing or even strip clubs--"Booty Meat" is as explicit as his carnality gets, and not only is he looking not touching, he's hoping an amateur will "turn around just like a pro." He's still boy enough to worry about those F's, and the most winning of his many winning songs was written to, and on, his Sidekick 3. There are enough sonic strokes here to keep the wrong bizzer in ringtone rappers for a year. But Soulja Boy's spiritual secret is that with less subcultural support than, say, Be Your Own Pet, he's reached the top of his world on a few tips from ex-partner Young Kwon and the loyalty of human sidekick Arab. You can hear how tickled he is about it. A MINUS

Wu-Tang Clan: 8 Diagrams (SRC/Universal Motown) Bogarted by RZA just like Raekwon says, and good. With his thumping beats and cinematic sweep, only RZA can capture the great Wu dichotomy, in which still-the-same-n**** rough stuff--"knuckles is brass, start snuffing you fast," "two grand'll handle your mouth"--coexists naturally with mystagogic symbology, apple martinis and casual references to Croatia and Liberia. It's RZA whose bird tweets and femme chorus captivate the "ears of corn and heads of lettuce" his one-man hymn to Allah calls out, RZA whose "hip-hop renaissance" leaps lightly from Benetton to some pistol grip I don't understand. The second greatest track belongs to George Clinton, the greatest to George Harrison, brought back from the dead by Ghostface Killah's tear-tattooed tale of not murdering somebody's nephew in Pathmark, just beating him comatose. But the album belongs to the hip-hop hippie. And an album it definitely is. A MINUS

Honorable Mention

  • The National: Boxer (Beggars Banquet) Love in the time of fake empire ("Fake Empire," "Mistaken for Strangers").
  • Imani Coppola: The Black & White Album (Ipecac) Think Macy Gray with less voice and no corny side, which she needs more than the voice now that she has some songs ("Woke Up White," "30th Birthday").
  • The Hives: The Black and White Album (A&M/Octone) Approach the debut's perfectly conveyed and controlled illusion of headlong desperation, then lose their cool ("You Got It All & . Wrong," "Well All Right!").
  • Noisettes: What's the Time Mr. Wolf? (Cherry/Universal Motown) Conscious punk aspiring to art-rock, and not ruinously ("Don't Give Up," "Scratch Your Name").
  • The Ponys: Turn the Lights Out (Matador) Echo for echo's sake ("Everyday Weapon," "Maybe I'll Try").
  • RBX: Broken Silence (Phantom Domestic) Paroled Death Row intimate pours some gravel on poor righteous teaching ("Stop That," "Echoes of My Mind").
  • Federation: It's Whateva (Reprise) Beyond the token ultraviolence they're dirty frat boys like Digital Underground, which doesn't mean they ever matriculated or anything ("Get Naked You Beezy," "College Girl").
  • Yeasayer: All Hour Cymbals (We Are Free) Tribal neo-psychedelia as spirit food for the grim times ahead ("2080," "Wait for the Wintertime").
  • J. Period & Game Rebellion: Searching for Rick Rubin (Truelements) Jay-Z, Run-D.M.C. and G.W.B. dragooned onto agitprop mixtape ("99 Problems," "Divide and Conquer").
  • The Chinese Stars: Listen to Your Left Brain (Three One G) Electropunks attempt garage guitar, which beats careers in equity management by quite a bit ("Left Brain," "Drugs and Sunshine").
  • Sonic Youth: The Destroyed Room: B-Sides and Rarities (Geffen) Washing Machine having cheaped out on "The Diamond Sea" at 19:35, they concoct an instrumental album to introduce the 25:48 version ("Fire Engine Dream," "Queen Anne Chair").
  • Crunk Hits Vol. 4 (TVT) A living party music enters its collectible novelty stage (Lil Jon Feat. Three 6 Mafia, "Act a Fool"; Huey, "Pop, Lock & Drop It").
  • Dennis Brown: The Best of the Joe Gibbs Years (Shanachie): Loving rocker in the conscious '70s ("Coming Home Tonight," "Black Liberation Time").
  • Jay-Z: American Gangster (Roc-a-Fella) Jay-Z, that's a brand name, like Pepsi, that's a brand name--he stands behind it, he guarantees it, even if you don't know him any more than you know the chairman of Universal Music ("Blue Magic," "Say Hello").
  • Band of Horses: Cease to Begin (Sub Pop) In a year you'll still remember most of these tunes, and you'll still wish it didn't take 34 minutes to get through 10 of them ("No One's Gonna Love You," "Cigarettes, Wedding Bands").

Choice Cuts

  • Gorilla Zoe, "Money Man," "Take Your Shoes Off," "Do Something" (Welcome to the Zoo, Bad Boy)
  • Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals, "Fight Outta You" (Lifeline, Virgin)
  • Hurricane Chris, "A Bay Bay The Ratchet Remix" (51/50 Ratchet, J)
  • The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)," "What's Going On" (What's Going On, Shout! Factory)

Dud of the Month

Deerhoof: Friend Opportunity (Kill Rock Stars): Just like some ambivalent bloggerati--though for me the process involved historical research rather than a fond reminisce down my hard drive's memory lane--I prefer this fussy little succes d'estime's avant period. But not, of course, because I equate muso experiment with Good and pop accommodation with Evil. It's for the very reason their admirers proffer their forgiveness--the accommodation is half-assed, clumsy. These are "rock songs" in Ned Rorem's dreams--they're as ornate as a high-class geisha house. And where formerly Satomi Matsuzaki's Shonen-Knife-goes-to-college was a precious abrasion melded into strange background music you could ignore at will, here we're expected to ponder what she might Mean. I'll pass until some bloggeratus posts the lyrics. Also after. C PLUS

More Duds

  • David Bowie: The Buddha of Suburbia (Virgin)
  • Carbon/Silicon: The Last Post (Caroline)
  • Deer Tick: War Elephant (Feow!)
  • Interpol: Our Love to Admire (Capitol)
  • Ky-Mani Marley: Radio (AAO/Vox)
  • The Sandinista! Project (00:02:59)
  • Serj Tankian: Elect the Dead (Serjical Strike/Reprise)

MSN Music, Jan. 2008


Dec. 2007 Feb. 2008