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Alt-Rap Exemplars: Expert Witness with Robert Christgau

The Dean reviews the latest from rappers Lyrics Born, Homeboy Sandman, Open Mike Eagle, and more.

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.

Lyrics Born: Now Look What You've Done, Lyrics Born!: Greatest Hits! (Mobile Home) Although his albums work fine as units, this cherry-pick cements Tokyo-born rapper Tom Shimura's demographically improbable standing as—with the exception of the elusive D'Angelo, I guess—the finest trad-funk vocalist of the new century. True, he lacks the black South chocolate that would normally flavor such an offhand drawl and relaxed flow—his very male timbre is more redolent of a northern office grunt shooting the shit over a six o'clock beer. But his cadences make the music move. Shimura's true place of origin is Berkeley, which would locate his politics if he didn't believe that in hip-hop, wisecracking middle-class critical realism is ideology aplenty. Instead, his home city has nurtured in him a taste in beats that at its best recalls both Boots Riley and Too Short. It's an East Bay thing, so try to understand. A


Homeboy Sandman: Kindness for Weakness (Stones Throw) Strictly on the down-low (is that the phrase?), Angel del Villar has recorded more quality long-players than anyone over the past decade. He's not a great—his sibilantly articulated flow just isn't as beautiful as Jay Z's, Lil Wayne's, or Nicki Minaj's. But when I wanted to demur mildly from his 2013 All That I Hold Dear, all I could do was quote his perturbed "How can an artist make too much art?" The answer is for the artist to fall in with a disrespected genre, as alt-rap seems doomed to remain, kinda like polka. His staccato three- and four-beat lines suit the rhyme-mad verbiage and moral directness you should love him for, and it's nice that he adds a common touch and a sense of humor. Highlights here are the lyrical "Heart Sings," the rousing "Real New York," the unrequited "Sly Fox," the religious "God," and the more religious "Speak Truth." Give him a fucking break, willya? A MINUS


Open Mike Eagle + Paul White: Hella Personal Film Festival (Mello Music) Alt-rapper Eagle dominates this meeting of the oddballs, as vocalist-lyricists will. But it's the rockish samples of outlying London beatmaker White that define it, because their blatant indifference to hip-hop or EDM align Eagle with talky singer-songwriters like Jeffrey Lewis and Charlie King as much as with Kool A.D. or Serengeti. "All my heroes is singers that can't sing," he ventures amid thoughts on cellphone dependence, barstool codependency, Obama flying by in a drone, and the skin he's in. So figure he already knows that the most powerful sonic here is a snatch of Lenny Bruce. That man had a sound. B PLUS


Cavanaugh: Time and Materials (Mello Music) Serengeti and Beatmaster Open Mike Eagle rap in character from a cross-class scenario so detailed you don't always know who's rapping as who—which is interesting ("Lemons," "Typecast") ***

Blackalicious: Imani Vol. 1 (Black Mines) "Blacka than midnight in Kuwait or Afghanistan"—also than "the president (well, half of him)" ("Blacka," "Alpha and Omega") **

D.R.A.M.: #1EpicSummer (self-released) More believable when he's dark and textural, more likable when he's soft and melodic ("Cha Cha," "$") **

Lyrics Born: Real People (Mobile Home) Hold on, Tom—when we say funk, Galactic is not what we have in mind ("Around the Bend," "Real People") *

Follow Robert Christgau on Twitter and read the archives of his criticism on his website.