The Dean of American Rock Critics reviews 'Black Panther: The Album,' three records from Rapsody, and one each from Rhiannon Giddens and Talib Kweli.
Kevin Mazur / Getty Images
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 six books, including his 2015 autobiography, Going Into the City. He currently teaches at New York University. Every week, we publish Expert Witness, his long-running critical column. To find out more about his career, read his welcome post; for four decades of critical reviews, check out his regularly updated website.
Black Panther: The Album (TDE/Aftermath/Interscope) Shrewdly, Kendrick Lamar conceived this not-actually-a-soundtrack as a relief from the burden of remaking himself album to album to album. Credited on only four tracks, he's all over it vocally anyway, marking every one of the nine remaining songs with a verse or chorus or hook defined by the least regal of the great rap flows, unassumingly slurred while making every word count. Throughout Lamar delivers star-studded, hooky-to-jingly, sneakily experimental pop-rap product tinged with the flick's racialized broad-stroke humanitarianism; whatever sketchy plot references some exegete may imagine, "I Am" is a stand-alone love song, "Paramedic!" a street-ready gangsta metaphor. As in the film, the music's African tinge bears down on electronic decibelizations of the ensemble percussion to which Americans of all races still reduce the continent's many musics, but with the saving grace that the wealth of cameos doesn't stop with the multiple star turns. Room is made not just for the phlegmy young Vallejo spitters Slimmy B and DaBoii unfazed by Top Dawg godfather Jay Rock, for UK ingenue Jorja Smith standing tall next to Top Dawg seeker SZA, but for five South Africans, one of whom rams home the most arresting verse on the record: seasoned "Jo-Burg Femcee" Yugen Blakrok, who tops "Opps" off with a deep-voiced rhyme that only begins by assonating "millipede" and "Millie Jackson." Blakrok has her own album coming. What a blow for Wakanda it would be if Top Dawg picked it up. A
Rapsody: Laila's Wisdom (Roc Nation) Country girl Marlanna Evans only got into hip-hop at North Carolina State, and 2017 Grammy nominations or no 2017 Grammy nominations she'll never be a promising young rapper again. Not only is she 35, she's too sane, too civilized, too deep into deep-soul beats every bit as Southern as their trap antitheses. Yet on this artistic breakthrough her "real life rap" matches her conversational, comprehensible, musically modest flow to content that's anything but regional. Rhyming her diary and mulling her cultural tribulations, she represents for young black working women everywhere. Would they all were so quick-lipped. Would they all had enough money. Would they all had a Busta Rhymes at the ready when they feel the need for some sugar. A MINUS
Rhiannon Giddens: Freedom Highway (Nonesuch) Maybe the songs about slavery top the songs about love because it's harder to oversing a song about slavery, especially one as honed as these are ("Julie," "At the Purchaser's Option," "Come Lover Come") ***
Talib Kweli: Radio Silence (3D) More woke than you, more skilled than you, and doing OK in the paper department too, he proves all these things yet again without getting his music around the crisis he knows his people and his country face ("She's My Hero," "Knockturnal") **
Rapsody: Beauty and the Beast (Jamla/Culture Over Everything) Underground rap manifesto as genuinely worthwhile endeavor ("Hard to Choose," "The Man") **
Rapsody: The Idea of Beautiful (Jamla/Culture Over Everything) Having waited years to unload her wisdom, she does go on about it ("Believe Me [9th Wonder HaHaHaHa Remix Mix]," "Celebration") *
Follow Robert Christgau on Twitter.