The Dean offers his take on the Detroit rapper's career, along with a bit of Ab-Soul.
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.
Ab-Soul: Do What Thou Wilt (Top Dawg Entertainment) "Mischievous, mysterious, miscellaneous," he calls himself—with exceptional self-awareness if you ask me. This big reader with the pathologically light-sensitive eyes will never write a senior thesis—college rap he ain't, which is a positive, nuhmean? But his music emanates intellectual excitement and pleasure as he grows up. Confused though the particulars of his "heroine addiction" are, his tree-huffing doggishness recedes whenever he rhymes his feminist-curious yearnings, and if his politics are too Aleister Crowley, at least he's down with the Beatles' psychedelic seer rather than Zeppelin's megalomaniac. As listening, more fun than his fellow Black Hippy's outtakes for sure. As wordplay too. As thinking, leaves room for improvement and reason to hope there'll be some. A MINUS
Danny Brown: XXX (Fool's Gold '11) "It's the Adderall admiral writing holy mackerel/Your bitch say my dick long like the strap on a satchel/I took me a capsule with no hassle/Now it's like I dip feathers of ink in a castle." For Brown, these lines are subaverage. But they were playing when I decided to describe his writing, and instantly I realized that his subaverage was 90th percentile at least—vocabulary like "satchel," vernacular like "holy mackerel," arcana like the quill pen, six off-rhymes in four lines, the news that he spun them off on speed. Also, he raps in at least two voices—one higher than his Detroit homeboy Shady's, one so street-manly he sounds like someone else. By changing up the usual fatalistic dope-fiend hedonism with new verbiage and situations—I direct sex fiends to the cunt-lapping relish of "I Will"—Brown's first proper album means to show us he's got a right to "Die Like a Rockstar," meaning rich, high, and verging on bored. But two-thirds in it suddenly turns as bleak as his ruined city. "DNA" blames not his father but his father's genes. A two-song sequence frames the downhill choices of a middle-class groupie as the tragedy they are. And the social-realist "Scrap or Die" gives us the dirt on the hood's heaviest junk—scrap metal stripped from condemned buildings. A MINUS
Danny Brown: Old (Fool's Gold '13) "They want the old Danny Brown," begins "Side A (Old)." So he executes a straight street-dealing rhyme like the ex-con he is, tells us how seven-year-old Danny got stomped by fiends on a trip to the store, and pairs off two lookbacks as convincing as anything in the hood-life literature—"25 Bucks," where his mom braids hair on the stairs for their supper, only then there's "Torture," where one fiend beats another with a hammer and another has pit bulls loosed on her pussy. "Side B (Dope Song)" begins with his very last, yeah sure, dope song before dealing up some of hip-hop's most detailed porn—Brown is the rare rapper for whom sex is about pleasure not power, flesh not hot air. But the climax is "Kush Coma," which is about what it says it's about and rides an eerie synth sustain to prove it. And the clincher is Ab-Soul's cameo on "Way Up Here," because Ab-Soul is a top-tier rapper who in this context you barely notice. That's how musical Brown's flow has become since the sing-song boilerplate he started out with. A MINUS
Danny Brown: Atrocity Exhibition (Warp) Brown has reached the point where success deadens more than it animates, conspicuous consumption turns trope turns bore, and copping to your "downward spiral" loses its pedagogical mojo. He's still plenty clever, but saying "Some people say I think too much/I don't think they think enough" only begins to prove it, and blaming his biochemistry as he keeps bitches on rotation is getting "old," as one might say. What saves it more than ever is musicality. Not only does Brown add the voice of a thoughtful struggler to his squealing weirdo and caustic thug, he sees to it that the tracks permute and evolve into something that feels thought through. So when he dubs himself "Coltrane on Soul Plane," Coltrane he earns, sort of. But I read where Soul Plane—never saw it, never will—was an unfunny hip-hop/blaxploitation parody of the already dumbass laff riot Airplane. Right, even bad jokes are better than going on about what a mess your life is. But they don't straighten it up. B PLUS
Danny Brown: The Hybrid (Deluxe Edition) (Hybrid Music '11) The cadences and dope tales too pat, the joys of fressing generics and jacking sunglasses far from it ("Thank God," "Cartier," "Guitar Solo") ***
Ab-Soul: These Days (Top Dawg Entertainment '14) In love with a suicide in a world controlled by forces he can't quite grasp, half-blind autodidact retains more brain if not reason than the average black hippy ("Closure," "Sapiosexual") *
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