Robert Christgau on JAY-Z's '4:44,' Vince Staples 'Big Fish Theory,' and More
The Dean also takes on Lil Wayne and Young Thug.
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 theVillage 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 read more about his career, read his welcome post; for four decades of critical reviews, check out his regularly updated website.
Jay-Z: 4:44 (Roc Nation/UMG) At its frequent peaks, this unusual album nails the understated mastery it's going for—the calm candor of a titan with plenty to own up to hence plenty to teach. He's so discreet you may not notice that he can still outrhyme the small fry—"fuck with me"-"cutlery"-"butlers be"-"hustlers be," say, all parsing as "The Story of OJ." But clever's not his program. From the subtle beats No I.D. builds from Sean Carter's all-time playlist, he means to pretend he's just talking to us, nowhere more than in the painfully detailed "4:44" a.k.a. "I Apologize" a.k.a. "I suck at love." But just as "4:44" resorts for no discernible reason to an "I cut off my nose to spite my face," "The Story of OJ" is marred by a pun on "Dumbo" that's funny twice max and very nearly wrecked by the deplorable "You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America?" The answer, in case you were wondering: "credit." Which is an OK principle—Jay-Z isn't the only rap elder advising youngbloods to buy property instead of Lambos. But there are plenty of similar lapses on an album where "Legacy" celebrates his money, some of it secured by other people's artworks, rather than his art. He's teaching black capitalism, not weighing every word much less manning up and learning to love. Compared to white capitalism, I'll take it. But unlike learning to love, it has plenty of downside. A MINUS
Vince Staples: Big Fish Theory (Def Jam) On an album that's two-thirds as amazing as is reported, nine-tenths of the amazement is musical. Not just the stripped-down electro powerbeats whose supple muscularity is less 2-step than is reported, but Staples's exacting articulation—he's on every beat smooth and toned, never e-nun-ci-a-ting but without a word lost. Which brings us to, you know, the rhymes. Sure he says what he wants to say with clarity and economy; sure he takes on police racism rampant. But what he wants to say is pretty much the usual except insofar as he doesn't murder anyone while preferring money to women. True, on the last two tracks he contemplates suicide in his first-class seat and muses about the mother of his very unborn children. But you know how it is—they always sneak some soft stuff in at the end. So maybe next time. And maybe not. A MINUS
Lil Wayne: In Tune We Trust (self-released) On Carter 5 teaser-we-hope, boss's freestyle tops posse's showpiece 16s ("Magnolia (Freestyle)," "Fireworks") *
Young Thug: Beautiful Thugger Girls (Atlantic) Singsong porn from a purple people eater who's seldom as funny as he used to be and sometimes funnier than he wants to be ("Family Don't Matter," "Take Care") *
Robert Christgau is on Twitter.