Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Xgau Sez

These are questions submitted by readers, and answered by Robert Christgau. New ones will appear in batches every third Tuesday.

To ask your own question, please use this form.

September 21, 2022

[Q] Mongo wrapping up treating several beautiful suckling piglets that came down with exudative dermatitis. Mongo try new treatment for them--antibiotics and Motown music. Pigs seem to respond best to music. It sure had Mongo stomping around the pens when "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" came on. Then Mongo think this damn Jamerson sure play purty bass, and damn why don't people talk about the Funk Brothers more often? Aren't they the best band of all time that nobody know? Hell, maybe they better than the Beach Boys? Mongo try to think of better bands but nothing happens for awhile. Then he remembers some other candidates for best "unknown" bands of all time. The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section Band, the Stax house band (Booker T. & the MGs), and the Wrecking Crew (natch). And Mongo throw in one more duo because he smoke too much weed--Sly and Robbie for they are multitudes in reggae. What you say? Is this silly parlor game? P.S. Mongo realized after he pressed send with meaty fingers he forgot to add the Hi Rhythm section band to his list of "unknown." Is anyone in there listening and can edit my question to add them? -- Mongolfier, Pig Farm, Ohio

[A] There are no parlor games anymore because there are no parlors. Instead there are internet timesucks, a category that includes neither your musical musings nor, I hope, my response. And for sure I've got one. Much as I admire Sly and Robbie especially, your first impulse was your best impulse. The winner is Motown's Funk Brothers hands down, though it must be said that they benefited immeasurably from their workmates: not just world-class vocalists the Temptations, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, and Smokey Robinson, to reference just the top tier, but extraordinary songwriters and producers, starting with Holland-Dozier-Holland of course but much as you might want to don't forget Berry Gordy, and I could go on. In my opinion none of the others you name are quite in their league, although Hi Rhythm with Al Green on board come close and L.A.'s Wrecking Crew also belongs in the mix (as indeed might the mid-'60s Rolling Stones). In this connection I highly recommend the 2019 Showtime documentary Hitsville: The Making of Motown, where I learned not only that drummer Benny Benjamin OD'd in 1968 and that nonpareil bassist James Jamerson, whose every lick Paul McCartney committed to memory and good for him, moved to L.A. in 1972 but never found his footing there. Race couldn't have helped, although the wondrous New Orleans drummer Earl Palmer did more than OK on the same scene. Neither could alcohol: Jamerson died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1983.

[Q] I've been benefiting from your pop-cultural optimism for nearly a half-century now, but I wonder if you share any of my current concern about the innovation slowdown (perhaps even a complete "stoppage") in pop music over the past three decades. For a good amount of recorded music's history, each decade brought a few breakthroughs unthinkable in the previous decade: Little Richard would have probably caused collective fainting-spells in the 1945 Coconut Grove, Are You Experienced? would have had people huddling in their bomb shelters in 1956, the Sex Pistols would have been placed on a mental-health watchlist in 1967, and Public Enemy's sampladelia would have caused hemorrhages on the 1975 Studio 54 dancefloor. As a post-Nevermind indie-rock agnostic and a post-Illmatic rap atheist, I don't think I've heard any pop music in the past 30 years that would have raised a conceptual eyebrow in the summer of 1989--if anyone can convince me otherwise, it's probably you. -- Petra St. Mu, New York City

[A] If you've really become a rap atheist then you've bowed out of the game. I mean, I have my doubts about most trap-identified contemporary hip-hop myself, but none whatsoever about Jay-Z, Eminem, pre-megalomaniac Kanye West, or Kendrick Lamar: unmistakably great and singular artists all, with many lessers making excellent and individually distinguished music in their wake, often off on the alt side (Homeboy Sandman, R.A.P. Ferreira). In alt-rock, meanwhile, the rise of the female factor has been a tremendous shot in the arm: Big Thief, Sad13, Chai, Illuminati Hotties, the Paranoid Style, Dry Cleaning, Wet Leg, I could go on, not always formally sui generis (though the first three sure are) but each markedly different and each imbued with a sense of destiny that comes out in the sound. Plus stuff that's going on in dance music that for a record nerd like me and perhaps you is too, as I like to say, site-specific, but as Beyonce likes to say is grist for the mill. Meanwhile try Phelimuncasi or DJ Maphorisa over in South Africa. Never heard anything much like 'em before.

[Q] Beyonce may reign supreme as today's pop queen but for the two decades between Madonna's heyday and Queen Bey, it was Britney bitch who held the throne. Your Britney reviews show Glory to be your favorite even though her earlier classics like Britney and Blackout rock much harder. And you never even reviewed her hits collection called The Essential Britney Spears which has got to be one of the great pop albums of all time. Did you miss that one when it was released in a limited edition or do you not agree it's her own personal A+ best? -- Gary K, Augusta, Maine

[A] The Essential Britney Spears is a three-CD set that came out during a twixt-CGs hiatus in 2014. I don't own it and have no desire ever to hear it; I mean, it's three CDs. As elsewhere noted, I seldom think the word "bitch" is funny or cool or ironic or whatever you believe it to be in this context. I suggest abjuring it in perpetuity. [Correction: it seems to be a two-CD set. I still don't feel I need to hear it.]

[Q] Why do you think Johnny Ramone said punk was inherently right-wing? Is it true? -- Dave Darren, New Jersey

[A] Because Johnny himself was a right-winger and right-wingers lie about everything. Obviously the vast majority of punks who had politics were lefties--to choose the most obvious, the Clash, the Dead Kennedys, riot grrrl, on and on and on. You are aware, right, that Joey wrote "The KKK Took My Baby Away" about Johnny?

August 24, 2022

And It Don't Stop.

The greatest jazz composer as a player, considering Zappa and 'Pet Sounds,' the internet's capacity for evil, Christian nationalists' capacity for same, and thoughts not from the killing floor.

[Q] You reviewed Duke Ellington This One's for Blanton, but never even mentioned his late masterpiece (it seems) The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse, which Gary Giddins called one of his favorite albums of the '70s (and I thank him for the recommendation). Have you heard it? What did you think? I also thank you. I'm very happy that you were there on internet back in the hard times to help me fall in love with music again. I didn't have any grandfathers, so at times it felt like you are one to me, revealing the secrets only grandfathers know. Also, any other writing is a breeze after yours. It's kind of a compliment. -- Mark, Russia

[A] Believe me, I know it's a compliment, and I always thank an internet for which I'm by no means always grateful when readers from a far-off culture tell me I've hipped them to some music that's brightened and deepened their lives. As you're not obliged to be aware though it's no secret, my tastes in jazz--which I've enjoyed since I was a teenager without ever developing anything remotely approaching the encyclopedic knowledge of my old colleague and longtime friend Giddins, in my opinion the greatest jazz critic who ever lived--run almost exclusively small-group. I like the interactive spontaneous multi-individuality of quartets and quintets especially. This One's for Blanton is of course a duet record featuring Ellington and the great bassist Ray Brown. It offers a rare chance to enjoy the spontaneous "understatement" and "extravagance" of the greatest jazz composer as a player.

[Q] Your opinions on early Frank Zappa records vary quite a bit (Hot Rats only got a C while the Mothers of Invention's We're Only In It for the Money got an A) so it's hard to know what you think of the rest of his 1960s work. Maybe you admire his satire more than his music so I'd like to know if you're fond of any other Mothers albums such as his musical peak Uncle Meat or his doo-wop satire/tribute Cruising with Ruben and the Jets and what you think of the Mothers of Invention in general in terms of rock history? -- GK, Illinois

[A] Zappa was a highly intelligent but even more egotistical motherfucker who I enjoyed mostly for his comedy/satire when he surfaced during the hippie era. It was bracing amid all that air pudding. But spiritually, let's call it, his aversion to air pudding bespoke an emotionally stunted person whose cultural utility shrunk drastically once the fatuous side of the hippie dream turned into a sick joke that didn't need him. I enjoyed Ruben and the Jets' simultaneously fond and satirical doowop, but relistening find its affection imperfectly realized and its satire shallow and racially suspect, in part because my respect for doowop itself has only deepened with the years. Similarly, I know many jazz-prone rock fans who adore his guitar, especially on Hot Rats. Me, I much prefer Stevie Ray Vaughan and Tom Verlaine, not to mention the inexhaustible Hendrix, and cannot offhand name a single jazz guitarist including George Benson and Jim Hall who means anything to me.

[Q] Rolling Stone's Top 500 albums of all time list ranked The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds as #2 with only Marvin Gaye's What's Going On above it. Your "hits plus filler" review of the Gaye explains why you only gave that one a B+ but you've never reviewed or even written about Pet Sounds to my knowledge. You have said that Wild Honey is your favorite BB album but us BB fans would sure love to know what you think of Pet Sounds--and Friends too for that matter as those two are considered Brian Wilson's musical peaks. Probably they're not A+ to you but do they at least earn an A- from the Dean? -- Lee M, NYC

[A] I don't know about Friends but sure Pet Sounds is at least an A minus. That said, it sounded better on Joe Levy's superb sound system after he cooked us dinner Sunday night (great editor, great cook) than it did on my good one at breakfast--as he pointed out, the Spector-inflected production meshes thrillingly with Wilson's rather less grand proclivities. But Joe was a teenager when he caught up with Pet Sounds, and therefore responded with more excitement than I could have to its aurally-enhanced emotional complexity. At 23, I found such complexities elsewhere--in both Thelonious Monk and the Rolling Stones, for starters. The Beach Boys I love are the surf-oriented adolescent hedonists of Endless Summer and also the low-Brian Wild Honey, which I can at least claim to have been on much earlier than most critics and which also featured prominently in the early weeks of my lifetime with Carola Dibbell.

[Q] What do you think of Neil Young and Joni Mitchell boycotting Spotify? On one hand U think it's good they stand up for a cause, but it's also REALLY going to limit their popularity among younger people. -- Sebastian, Santiago, Chile

[A] I think it's great--well-known artists publicly calling attention to the internet's capacity for evil, while obviously of limited practical utility, automatically enriches the conversation and sours by just a miniquantum their admirers' trust of and tolerance for online information. Me, I can't do my work without Spotify, so I continue to use it. Can't do my work without Amazon Prime's overnight delivery either. But I do what I can to purchase books and meds and other stuff elsewhere.

[Q] Why was important to mention in the response to Stan Greer's question that the man had an Italian surname? -- Mark Carpentieri, Suffolk County

[A] Funny you should ask, because my editor tried to get me to omit it. Answer's simple, as I can't imagine you didn't guess. I remember that his surname was Italian because to me that indicated Roman Catholic, which in 1969 was the religion most ardently opposed to what I'll just call family planning. Indeed, not even Pope Francis, who I admire enormously, has lifted the RC ban on contraception that increasingly few Catholics obey. I mean, this doctor (presumably an intern) was a menace, claiming that his refusal to release the young woman was medical while at the same time actively hostile to both the patient and the two hippies who were trying to spring her before he could summon not senior medical advice but the law. And he was clearly appalled by Ellen Willis, who was formidable and unyielding in argument as for many men at that time and quite a few today no woman should have the temerity to be. I no longer recall how we brazened our way out, but the verbal battle was pretty brutal. These days, of course, Christian nationalists are the fiercest bullies on this subject, passing more and more sadistic, misogynistic anti-abortion laws in state legislatures, and if you'd told us in 1969 that Roe v Wade would change American law in a few years we wouldn't have believed it.

[Q] I'm interested in your take on white people listening to black music. I'm not trying to open cans of worms here, I'm prompted by something I read (from Frederick Joseph?) about not pretending to understand a culture you have no way of understanding. I can discern artistry in words and music, but I've never been on the killing floor or lived in a food desert. -- Tincanman, British Columbia

[A] Since a substantial proportion of the music I write about is created by Black people, this is clearly a question loaded with worms. Books can be written on such subjects, and many have been. But just for starters let me make a few points. Most important, "black music" is gross if often unavoidable shorthand. Is all music created by Black people "black music" no matter the intentions of its creators? Is it all "black" in the same way? Is that way the music's sole aim and total meaning? In creating it is a Black musician intending to define or express Black culture or merely expressing his or her own vision of the world and formal relationship to music, which is probably inflected by his or her Blackness but presumably not limited to it because he or she is also a human individual not all of whose uniqueness is bound up with experiences he or she shares with other Black people--and not all of whom have ever lived in a food desert or worked on the killing floor. Moreover, the vast majority of those musicians would just as soon sell their music to humans of every racial orientation. In listening to this music is a white person pretending to "understand" Black culture? As indicated, I could go on for pages; many have, not all of them Black. But instead I suggest you make an effort to clarify your thinking while you continue to listen to "black music" whatever your own racial heritage and/or orientation.

July 20, 2022

And It Don't Stop.

Francophone bias, loving the '90s without loving grunge, quoting a misogynist without endorsing a misogynist, B sides, don't stop can't stop won't stop, and a few words from the estimable C.D.

[Q] Hi Bob, hope you and Carola are doing well, back here with another question: is there any reason why you've never reviewed Jacques Brel? To me at least he seems to be one of the major artists of the 20th century and one of the greatest live-performers, aside from being a vocal powerhouse. Please don't tell me that's just my Belgian bias. -- Arthur Hendrikx, Brussels, Vlaams-Brabant, Belgium

[A] It's not your Belgian bias, it's your Francophone bias, only calling it a bias would diminish it egregiously--that's not a bias, it's a power or capability. You speak French, but though I can read a little French when necessary, I can't hear it. So while my wife's great ear extends to foreign languages, not just French but also Spanish and even once when we were lost south of Rome Italian, I can't begin to hear Brel's lyrics. Hence I've never even played her Brel because I've tried a few times and know I don't get him. In French chanson especially, this is a major deficit, because French chanson is more logocentric than any other popular music I'm aware of. I have little doubt he's the titan you say he is--certainly his reputation is absolutely tops. But not in my physical and hence intellectual experience.

[Q] Why do you hate grunge and early '90s music in general? The only alternative artist that you've bestowed an A rating on is Nirvana, which of course is not controversial. Does this stem from being a crotchety old man by the time the Gen Xers began to take over the content or is it more related to being a New York hipster who predictably favours the children of the CBGB scene? I think it's time to give credit where it is long overdue. -- KG, Oslo

[A] I certainly don't hate early '90s music. Skipping hip-hop and for purposes of argument overlooking snobby New Yorkers like Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo, how about Pavement, PJ Harvey, Archers of Loaf, Los Lobos/Latin Playboys, Liz Phair, L7, the Chills, My Bloody Valentine, Hole, the Pixies? True, there are many wimmin in there, not to mention, ulp, Latinos. "Early '90s" they all were, however. As for grunge, I don't hate it, I just don't like it that much, which is different--it tends too dark, too melodramatic, and even so I was always OK with the grunge-adjacent Pearl Jam. But as I put it in my Lenny Kaye review a few months ago: Seattle was "an overcast burg with a 'metal undercurrent' and more heroin ODs than a primal animal can stand." I had many good times there when it was the home of the pop conference. But I'll never love the Melvins.

[Q] Will you be reviewing the Harry Smith B-sides box set that came out in late 2020? Although it's certainly an historic archival release, I question its playability as compared to the canonical Anthology of American Folk Music which got a rare A+ from you. If you've played it through a few times, I'd be curious how you enjoyed it. Thanks. -- Chris, New York City

[A] I bought it, for big shekels, and played it several times without ever being moved to write about it. I may yet, of course. But its word-of-mouth in my tiny corner of the musical universe is nothing special. They don't call 'em B sides for nothing.

[Q] I have been a fan of your music criticism for decades. As a pro-life political conservative (with libertarian leanings on immigration), I don't expect to agree with hardly anything you say about politics, but I do expect you to have some awareness of the facts. Your slam at Justice Alito for citing Matthew Hale in your Lookback is incredibly ignorant. As many have pointed out, liberal justices whom I assume you would never accuse of tolerating misogyny have cited Hale quite recently. A lot of his views are unacceptable to many people today. I am confident your advocacy of unrestricted abortion on demand will be regarded by virtually everyone as barbaric in the not-too-distant future. But in that future, it would be stupid to assume that, because of your grave errors on certain topics, you shouldn't be cited about any matter. -- Stan Greer, Fairfax, Virginia

[A] That a few of what I presume is the usual phalanx of radical-right disinformation warriors have spread the news that the likes of Justice Kagan has been known to cite the same prominent 18th century British misogynist jurist Alito quotes in his barbaric abortion decision doesn't mean she was endorsing said misogynist. It means that Kagan is doing what debaters do: saying "See, even this famous 18th-century proto-ultracon agrees with me, so why don't apprentice proto-ultracons like Brett and Clarence do the same?" She's pretty sure it won't work, but anything is worth a try and maybe she'll even make them so mad they'll flash their dicks and she can snap a quick pic and get them in trouble. FWIW, as the boyfriend of organizer Ellen Willis I attended the inaugural March 1969 abortion speakout at Washington Square Methodist Church (without, you bet, opening my mouth). A month or so later I helped Willis sign out a young woman who'd recently had an abortion from Bellevue, where a young internist with an Italian surname fought to detain her, presumably until he could get her in trouble with the law. Willis prevailed--she was tough. The woman slept on our couch that night and was fine next morning. Researching Going Into the City, I found in my files a sheet of yellow paper listing doctors who'd do abortions in the Northeast. I know many women who've had abortions. As it happens, every one my wife and I could think of also raised children and did a great job of it too.

[Q] Given your Substack title And It Don't Stop, what's your favourite "don't stop" song? "Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough"? Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop"? "Don't Stop Believing"? "Don't Stop Me Now"? Just a silly little question. -- Liam, Johannesburg, South Africa

[A] "And it don't stop" was an early hip-hop usage--a rhythmic device, a kind of readymade early rappers used to pull out to keep the beat going until they figured out what should come next. Raquel Cepeda once called an anthology of hip-hop journalism she put together And It Don't Stop. Both those things said, however, "Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough" is very much my favorite Michael Jackson track and always has been--it's quite the thematic title, after all. So when Kit Rachlis, Tom Carson, and Jeff Salamon assembled a festschrift for my 60th birthday, that's what they called it. Still for sale at my site.

[Q] I'm going to follow up on last month's Xgau Sez reply to the question about taste differences between Bob and his wife Carola, who is me. At the time he wrote his answer, I was not in a mood to pin down what I thought Bob got wrong but afterwards found it bugged me, so I'd like to get this straight. Bob pointed out that I like singer-songwriters less than he does, explaining that I respond more to music than lyrics, which he connected to my musical training. I don't think four years of piano lessons in elementary school did this to me. I think I just crave something I'm more likely to find in bands or groups, not just sound and beat and danceability but attitude--fuck you, don't let them get you down, hallelujah I'm a bum. And I get something from the group identity. When I hear Parquet Courts, who project some kind of political alertness, I feel like I'm part of something, but even an idea-free group like Chai fills a space no individual could. (It's true some singer-songwriters do these things too. I'm thinking Todd Snider.) Bob and I have our arguments but rarely about music. I can't even think of anything he likes that I hate. But he has his own rules for listening--he has to like all the cuts on a record to give it an A, and I will love a record based on the lead cut. Of Bob's recent A's, I've gone for the Ukrainian band Selo i Ludy and that South African dance record from DJ Maphorisa. Thanks, Erin, who wrote the original question, for remembering my old Go-Betweens review and for reminding us to relisten to the sweet and soaring sounds of Aztec Camera, what a treat. Here's another modest piece I'm proud of: "Esther Phillips With a Twist." -- Carola Dibbell, New York City

[A] When Carola told me she was going to write this I told her I had the perfect riposte: "Yes dear." But as usual she worked so hard on it she took the wise guy right out of me. So I'll just say that four years of piano lessons puts her well out of my league in itself--after all these years my formal knowledge of music is still approximately zero. And I'll add as well that that Esther Phillips piece is a winner. But then, they pretty much all are.

June 15, 2022

And It Don't Stop.

Standing by some old judgments; grade-grubbing Nas, Al Green, and A Tribe Called Quest; appreciating Billy Joel's attention to prose; and an encomium to the estimable C.D.

[Q] I ask this with respect for your intellectual and emotional engagement with records and artists of all stripes across many decades (including my beloved Wussy), and as a muso who excitedly read and re-read your Pazz & Jop essays and your Rock & Roll & columns in the Voice: Do your casual judgments of '70s Soul artists like Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway, and Roberta Flack ever bother you in retrospect? Not so much the assessment of the music as the way you frame it--like Betty Davis as "the most overstated cartoon sex since Angelfood McSpade"? (Yes, I'm very familiar with the RL Crumb comics.) Particularly in light of the way Black American history has played out across the past several decades, isn't there something a little "crime," as my kids would say, about the white male Dean sitting in such casual, sometimes cruel, judgment of Black artists? -- Pete Cenedella, South Orange, New Jersey

[A] I'm certainly aware of this issue. But that doesn't mean I feel any shame or guilt about what I wrote. My attitude in the '70s and '80s, after which I stopped writing as many pans as I had though the Turkey Shoots could be pretty insulting, was that it was my job to review all of popular music, including much more black music (which I'd now call Black because I recognize and affirm that that usage has changed) than any other generalist except Dave Marsh, because as I've written many times, almost all American pop music, especially post-1900, is part-African. But since I was often pointed and jocular about white rock, I saw no reason why I should treat Black music any differently--these too were commercially ambitious artists trying to sell their music to anyone with the shekels, and to protect them from barbs, to pretend that they were incapable of the same kind of failures of concept and execution that white musicians were, or that they didn't sometimes grind out ordinary or weak product in hopes of selling it anyway, would be more condescending than disrespectful. As I keep saying, we like what we like, period. These days, when the Consumer Guide no longer makes any pretense to completism, I'm free to ignore both self-importance (no point getting in trouble by naming any offender here) and offensive content (the sexism and brutality that continue to be currencies in some of the hip-hop I don't go for) of a lot of music I long ago might have felt obliged to pan. But I still think that Curtis Mayfield stretched himself way too thin and that Betty Davis was and remains overrated. I'm still bored by Hathaway and Flack. Nor are any of those judgments "casual"--they're examined and ear-tested and and thought through. And by the way, I make it a principle not to censor myself--or simply avoid criticism--by removing anything I've published from my site even if I have regrets about it in retrospect.

[Q] Hi again, Bob. Hope you're well. I ran across an article from January in the Atlantic, which was embedded in an article about the somewhat marginal Jack White and wondered if you'd read it, and if you had thoughts. The premise, statistically supported right or wrong, is that nobody listens to new stuff anymore; that the marketplace is deliberately stagnated by corporate types; that we should want to break out of that and maybe we will. It posits some theories about why everyone is just content to listen to Police songs and have zero interest in further expansion. You're the guy who never stops searching--so, thoughts? Is it that there's just too much stuff?? Thanks. -- David Poindexter, Illinois

[A] I value the Atlantic because it does some of the best political reporting and analysis in America, not because I pay much mind to its music coverage. Ted Gioia, who wrote the article you refer to, is a music historian of impressive breadth and appetite whose intellectual acuity is nothing special and whose heart is with jazz--see this review of one of his recent books that I wrote for the LA Times. To me it seems as if the stats he cites have a much simpler and less momentous explanation. First, people listen to more older music because every year there's more of it. In addition, the way these things are categorized relatively recent albums are classified as catalog -- almost all of all of streaming champ Taylor Swift's 12 albums qualify as old music. Electrical recording is now just under a century old; what we might call hi-fi dates back to the rise of the LP circa 1948; pop became a "billion-dollar business" with the profusion of new product that boom generated circa 1971; crucially, digitization and then streaming made more music more available early in this century. There's no question that recording artists' revenues are down and will probably stay that way, so that most musicians will need to make their living on the road as they did through most of history. Whether that means that young consumers are hearing or indeed caring about less new music now than in say 2000 is another question altogether. Moreover, that older consumers are still listening to the music they grew up loving seems completely natural even if I get more sustenance myself by mixing in a lot of new stuff. And two more things. One, Gioia pays almost no attention whatsoever to hip-hop or dance music, both of which tend more innovative. And while he is especially interested in the venture capital the major labels put into new music, what I find significant is that music can now be recorded so cheaply and distributed so freely that a substantial chunk of what shows up in the Consumer Guide is DIY or close to it--stuff I learn about via various grapevines and online journalism.

[Q] After reading in your Lookback piece that you voted for A Tribe Called Quest for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this year (good on ya), I was wondering if you'd re-assessed their '90s classic The Low End Theory? I generally agree with your ratings, or at least can see where you're coming from, but that one only being an honorable mention I've never understood. I love every track on the thing, it's got some of Q-Tip's and Phife Dawg's best verses ("float like gravity, never had a cavity" is my favorite ever nonsense rap boast), and it builds to a splendid climax with "Scenario." A plus by me. -- Oliver Hollander, UK

[A] I've been playing TCQ a fair amount since reading Dan Charnas's J. Dilla bio and certainly agree that Low End Theory is more than an Honorable Mention, but back to back I still prefer their de facto postscript cum summum, the relatively slept-on 2016 We Got It From Here. So let's just make it an A for the time being, OK?

[Q] Hi Bob, hope you're doing well. Any reason why you didn't review the last three Nas albums? King's Disease II in particular was really good (he sounds more focused than ever since Illmatic), I'd love to know your opinion. Also: still no regrets about not giving Illmatic an A plus? With every new year that album sounds more like an A plus to me (and a lot of other people). Even a principled vulgarian such as yourself should hear that! And the same goes for Enter the Wu-Tang; if that's not a A plus I don't know what is. -- Arthur Hendrikx, Brussels, Belgium

[A] Actually, I did review two recent Nas albums in February, subscriber-only of course. There was a third I thought negligible and skipped, as I have many others--thinks a lot of himself, does Nas. As for Illmatic, A not A plus for me pretty sure. Since getting into the Wu-Tang Clan due to their Hulu bioseries I've been meaning to replay their debut album. Would be surprised if it didn't sound like a full A. Would also be surprised if I thought it was an A plus.

Nas: King's Disease (Mass Appeal '20) Showcasing the powers, pleasures, responsibilities, contradictions, and elephantiasis of the ego that accrue to so many hip-hop tycoons ("Car #85," "10 Points") *

Nas: King's Disease II (Mass Appeal) Many hip-hop fans of a certain age consider Nasir Jones's 1994 debut Illmatic hip-hop's greatest album, and for sure the Honorable Mention I gave it in 1994 was way low. There was a leanness to his flow and timbre back then that the Pete Rock/Large Professor/Premier production honored and enhanced, and I admire how matter-of-factly unmoralistic lyrics from the Queensbridge Houses come to a proper climax with "Represent" and "It Ain't Hard to Tell." But that honest broker went what we'll call conscious gangsta with the thuggier I Am . . . and didn't regain his more humane voice until the mid 2000s trilogy Street's Disciple/Hip Hop Is Dead/Untitled--a voice that hasn't been approached again till this follow-up to its crasser namesake. I know I'm showing my age when I say EPMD, Lauryn Hill, and Eminem make it better and Lil Baby doesn't. But if you suspect I could be right let me remind you that backloading the humane stuff is an old hip-hop trick: "Composure," "My Bible," and "Nas Is Good" provide relief at the end. And oh yeah--the bottom falls out on the so-called Magic he released just four months later, summed up by this Insecure Verse: "You're top three, I'm number one, how could you say that?" B PLUS

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