Expert Witness with Robert Christgau: Up, Down, and All Over the Place
The dean tackles 'The Hamilton Mixtape,' some Injury Reserve, and Quasi's 'Battle Hymns' compilation
The self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics," Robert Christgau was one of the pioneers of music criticism as we know it. He was the music editor at the Village Voice for almost four decades where he created the trusted annual Pazz & Jop Poll. He was one of the first mainstream critics to write about hip-hop and the only one to review Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water with one word: "Melodic." On top of his columns, he has published a number of books over his career including his autobiography, Going Into the City, which was released in 2015 to critical acclaim. He currently teaches at New York University. Every week, we publish Expert Witness, his long-running critical column. To read more about his career, read his welcome post; for four decades of critical reviews, check out his regularly updated website.
Injury Reserve: Floss (Las Fuegas) Two rappers from, well, suburban Phoenix—native Arizonan Ritchie With the T, a year short of a B.A. with his dad dead and his mom fighting cancer, and Oakland immigrant Steppa J. Groggs, pushing 30 with drug, alcohol, and weight problems and a new daughter—generate the most unpretentious hip-hop you ever heard. No bitch fictions unless protecting her bad self with their dad self counts. No street fictions either—if you must come strapped, they request you leave it in your pants. No preaching even as they dispatch anti-black bias, anti-Native American bias, consumer fetishism, global warming, and the trans bathroom perplex in one 100-second interlude. No flexible flow or crystalline enunciation, yet every apt word distinct. Parker Corey's production nothing to tweet about, yet every beat strong and hook real. The sole questionable moment comes when Ritchie anticipates his Grammy nomination in "Look Mama I Did It," a longshot even if you give him props for not claiming the statuette itself. But when they say they're making a living at it, you'll believe they deserve to earn more in this perilous year than they did last. A MINUS
The Hamilton Mixtape (Atlantic) Few of the three dozen featured performers are any kind of hanger-on—Jimmy Fallon sure, maybe Andra Day or Francis and the Lights, but not, for instance, Snow Tha Product or Riz MC or Residente, who take the multilingual "Immigrants" home. But it is a mixtape—up, down, and all over the place. So its lessons and pleasures hang together in only one respect—by proving that committed rappers and pop stars do more for these theater songs than the actors who rendered them a phenomenon. It also reminds us that a hyper-intelligent rapper of dubious flow will eventually sound iconic if granted sufficient access to our earholes—Kanye West, meet Lin-Manuel Miranda. It affords Kelly Clarkson the smartest big ballad of her leather-lunged life. It finds a social use for Ja Rule and Wiz Khalifa. It folds in an anti-slavery bonus. It gives Dessa a chance. In some kinda way, it works. A MINUS
Injury Reserve: Live From the Dentist Office (Las Fuegas) Still deciding what to rap about on their debut, they deliver the eternal we're-good-rappers-so-listen-up with their already trademark matter-of-factness. To hammer their point home, they provide hooks in highly reliable fashion, two of the best attached to lyrics more lyrical than the titles "Yo" and "Wow" portend. On two successive six-minute closers, however, they either run out of ideas or mistake slowcore for a good one. B PLUS
Atmosphere: Fishing Blues (Rhymesayers) Rap lifer is so glad he got there and hopes you are too ("Next to You," "The Shit That We've Been Through") ***
Noname: Telefone (self-released) On the brink of a poetic breakthrough, gentle sweety-pie with a Hennessy habit isn't ready to assume the burden, not quite yet ("Yesterday," "Casket Pretty") ***
Ka: Honor Killed the Samurai (Iron Works) 46-year-old NYC firefighter—a "job," not a "calling," he stresses—crystallizes Brownsville gangsta knowledge into finely worked rhymes gruffly and grittily served ("Finer Things/Tamahagee," "Just") **
J. Cole: For Your Eyez Only (Dreamville/Roc Nation/Interscope) So dweeby he's got balls about it, and you gotta love two of the most domestic love songs in a hip hop canon guaranteed to ignore them ("Foldin Clothes," "She's Mine Pt 2") *
Kool A.D.: Official (self-released) Boy Crisis founder changes shit up on theoretically hit-seeking hyphy album ("Es Nada," "U Kno We on the West Side") *
Battle Hymns (quasiband.com) Pay what you want, but with every penny forwarded to Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and 350.org, I clicked the suggested 20 bucks for this Portland-scene "protest record." Though it does fade at the end, a perceived historical imperative focuses these aesthetes on the proudly political. Not only is there no alt-poetic obscurantism, there's nothing preachy-programmatic-etc. about the sure shots, which outnumber the OKs two-to-one unless you're "bored" by phraseology like "We Won't Go Back," "Fight the Hate," "Save Our Soul," and "Love in the Time of Resistance," in which case Love Always, Mary Timony, Boss Hog, and Corin Tucker will get in your face about it. Most historic are Quasi's allegorical "Ballad of Donald Duck & Elmer Fudd" and Mac McCaughan's post-slack motherfucker "Happy New Year (Prince Can't Die Again)." "This year it seemed like nothing really mattered / You could be any horrible thing and rise to the top of the shitheap," he recalls. "Next year might be better / But I don't see any proof," he admits. Yet he brims with love and energy anyway: "Play the long game, muster up some cheer," he advises, then predicts "The South won't rise again." He's from North Carolina, so let's hope he knows something. A MINUS
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