Rap’s Early 2017 Victory: Robert Christgau on Kendrick Lamar, Migos, and Future

It would be silly to deny how good this music sounds.

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May 5 2017, 4:30pm

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 read more about his career, read his welcome post; for four decades of critical reviews, check out his regularly updated website.

Kendrick Lamar: Damn. (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope) Thematically, these thoughts of a pushing-30 superstar are almost conventional compared to the rest of his official output—good kid, m.A.A.d city's top-this narrative, To Pimp a Butterfly's political ambition and jazz-hip sweep, even untitled, unmastered's barrel-scraping scatter. Old head Greg Tate is reminded of De La Soul Is Dead—it's the kind of album you make after you've experienced fame's drawbacks from the inside. But this one's much harder to resist. Lamar's pensive self-doubt and modest buying habits are reassuring if you wish him well as a person, as why shouldn't you, and the simple keys-percussion-chorus beats flatter his cushiony timbre. Musically, Damn. is as calm as To Pimp a Butterfly is ebullient; lyrically, its only misstep is a pseudo-scriptural "don't call me black no more" that inspired Tate to quote Franz Fanon. Remaining skeptics should proceed directly to what vinyl fetishists know as side two, with its hit single, its "Lust"-to-"Love," its remembrance of ass-whuppings past, and its autobiographical miracle. He got what he wanted without squandering what he had. A MINUS

Migos: Culture (QC/YRN/300) It would be silly to deny how good this music sounds. These three rather different young men are much more than amigos—they're blood relatives raised by the same heroic mama, and while they don't harmonize like Isleys or Everlys, their pitch-corrected interactions are a consanguineous delight. Rather than bitches, cars, etc., they're about homologous voices twisting internal rhymes through associative verses, with the "ad libs" that punctuate line after line the payoff that's made them such a thing. Although sometimes these merely repeat the line's final word, that can be fun in itself, and it sets up the repeated jack-in-the-box joke of springing an improved alternative keyword instead. And as anybody who's heard "Bad and Boujee" three times knows, best of all are the sound effects: bwah, skrrrt, brrrup. Some believe these echo gunfire. I prefer to table that theory till next time. A MINUS

Honorable Mentions:
Migos: Y.R.N. 2 (Young Rich Niggas 2)
(self-released) Their farewell to DIY is slightly less hooky and more thug, and it makes a difference ("You Wanna See," "Chances") ***

Future: Hendrxx (Epic) Better half of a pretty decent album, in order of appearance: "My Collection," "Coming Out Strong," "Testify," "Fresh Air," "Neva Missa Lost," "Turn on Me," "Sorry" ("Turn on Me," "Coming Out Strong") **

Future: Future (Epic) Lesser half of a pretty decent album, in order of appearance: "Zoom," "Mask Off," "Outta Time," "Scrape," "When I Was Broke," "Feds Did a Sweep" ("When I Was Broke," "Mask Off") *

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