The Poet and the Hustler: Expert Witness with Robert Christgau
The Dean takes a deep dive into the works of San Francisco singer-songwriter Dawn Oberg and Detroit rapper DeJ Loaf.
Welcome to Expert Witness with Robert Christgau, the self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics." He currently teaches at NYU and published multiple books throughout his life. For nearly four decades, he worked as the music editor for The Village Voice, where he created the annual Pazz & Jop poll. Every Friday, Noisey will happily publish his long-running critical column. To learn more about him and his life, read his welcome post here.
Dawn Oberg: Rye (Blossom Theory '12): There are breakup albums and then there's this: forties-ish woman, heavy of voice and keyboard with wit and juices lightly flowing, introduces herself as "The Girl Who Sleeps With Books" and regrets plenty while continuing to enjoy the title elixir, although it brings him to mind and that hurts. In a song that lasts 1:35 she hints at why, twice: "He likes to read Thucydides / But doesn't mock stupidities / He's probably read Euripides as well / But he's really not the type to read and tell." Midpart's more meditative, including straight advice directed straight to a stranger straight from the heart. Then the actual breakup tale—“No one was was vindictive, no one lied / Shagged the nanny or the pool boy on the side"—gets us to a celebration of her true love, which is San Francisco. "The bars are sexier than sex," she claims, and if it makes her feel better she should definitely think that. A
DeJ Loaf: Sell Sole (self-released '14) DeJ rhymes with "beige" and is short for Deja; Loaf signals style and is short for her shoes. Although the girlish Detroit rapper's second mixtape was sparked by her fuck-you earworm "Try Me," which used to cap it off but isn't on the one I bought two years late, I found her hammer-to-your-head manifesto for her "unborn creations" so irresistible that I never much missed it. It's the voice only that's girlish, clear and fluting although also calm and composed. The persona is more "I'm gonna shit on all these bitches and their daughters," in that particular case echoed by a crew I bet she enlisted at a middle-school playground. What's irresistible is the form-content disparity—a rapper who brags so un-macho, a rapper whose greed is so explicitly for her family, a rapper who's "Grindin'" at music. Plus her flow is a brook, her producer respects her space, and her two sex rhymes are into it and into it more. A MINUS
Dawn Oberg: Bring (Blossom Theory '15) Oberg sings in an alto that doesn't actually go flat when it modulates way down as is its wont. Delivering nine expertly wrought songs in 27 minutes, she plays acoustic piano over G-B-D with jazz gestalt, zero-plus solos, and a beat more martial than swinging. The song to the God she doesn't believe in kind of rocks even so; the song about the seductive geometry of the martini glass devotes 30 seconds to chamber music. Male love objects are MIA, although she digs her bartender; three outspoken tracks praise female friends, only one of whom deserves to be as famous as she does. Figure Oberg really isn't "so good at loving anybody up close." But you and me are at just the right distance: "Want to help your dead ass fly away when you've had your last breath / Want to rip a new one in the mean angel of death / Want to crush all your despair I want to make you laugh / Want to make St. Peter testify on your behalf." A MINUS
DeJ Loaf: Just Do It (self-released '12) Skip the annoying skit. Then play and preserve in whatever passes for your permanent collection five consecutive autobiographical songs so detailed and painful and loving and classic I have to name them all: "My Life," "Meant for Me," "Mommy I'm a Princess," "Mrs. Williams," and the amazing "College," beat just a drum with three different DeJs rapping over and behind and in between each other. After a much better skit it's DeJ ordinaire, with the advisory "Go for What You Know" and the skeptical "More Money, More Problems" worth active attention. But the shit's still free and out there, and don't kid yourself—it won't always be. B PLUS
DeJ Loaf: #AndSeeThatsTheThing (IBGM/Columbia '15) Her "debut" EP, meaning her major-label shot, begins with three rather joyful tracks—electric-celeste grindin' pledge "Desire" to burbling-synth grindin' saga "Been on My Grind" to—finally, some fun—Big Sean transactional-sex deal "Back Up." Then that killjoy Future starts nosing around, and I mean literally, in her pussy, which is as joyful as that one gets. And then comes two pieces of theoretical product I hope earn her a full-length. She's worked hard for it. B PLUS
Dawn Oberg: Horticulture Wars (Blossom Theory '08) "Old hussies never die," she brags before cheering on her daffodils, micro-managing her soufflé, and considering the purchase of a French maid's outfit. ("Soufflé," "Since You Put Up With Me") **
DeJ Loaf: All Jokes Aside (self-released '16) Takes on some grit as she takes on "Them niggaz they want us to fail," but don't worry—you'll still be there to root for her. ("Bitch Please," "How") **