Robert Christgau on Saba's Humanist Hip-Hop
The Dean of American Rock Critics reviews two records from the Chicago indie rapper, plus recent projects from The Coup, G Herbo, Czarface, and 1800 Seconds.
The self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics," Robert Christgau was one of the pioneers of music criticism as we know it—the music editor of the Village Voice from 1974 to 1985 and its chief music critic for several decades after that. At the Voice he created both the annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll and his monthly Consumer Guides. Christgau was one of the first critics to write about hip-hop and the only one to review Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water with one word: "Melodic." He taught at New York University between 1990 and 2016, and has published six books, including his 2015 memoir Going Into the City. A seventh, Is It Still Good to Ya?: Fifty Years of Rock Criticism 1967-2017, is now available from Duke University Press. Every Friday we run Expert Witness, the weekly version of the Consumer Guide he launched in 2010. To find out more, read his welcome post; for almost five decades of critical reviews, check out his regularly updated website.
Saba: Care for Me (Saba Pivot) Like Noname, Donnie Trumpet, and pathfinder Chance the Rapper, Saba makes humanist hip-hop like few outside Chance's Chicago orbit—Homeboy Sandman, Atmosphere, and fellow Chicagoans Serengeti and Open Mike Eagle come to mind, not many others. I don't mean color-blind or race-neutral—no humanist with a brain would make that race-negative mistake. I just mean what these days is called, well, relatable. Every song on this official debut is rooted in Saba's hood and brushed if not haunted by his murdered cousin and partner John Walt—"Jesus died for our sins, Walter got killed for a coat." But it's also haunted by the sexual stress most male rappers are too fake to admit, by the career anxieties of someone who gave up an Ivy League scholarship to pursue music like his absent father. And it's warmed by an unassuming, conversational flow fitted to beats that favor naturalistic keyboards and percussion. A gorgeous and affecting record. A MINUS
The Coup: Sorry to Bother You: The Soundtrack (Interscope) Six of the nine tracks on an album that breakthrough director Boots Riley couldn't resist tacking onto his debut flick are boosted by guest stars, including undeniables Tune-Yards, Killer Mike, and E-40, although the two Janelle Monáes seem a mite thin for his baked-in Oakland funk. And all three Boots-alones are in his ideologically revolutionary tradition, which now goes back a quarter century. "We Need an Eruption"? "Level It Up"? He means those things, as he always has, although of course he's also glad "level" rhymes with "Neville"—Aaron, to be specific. A MINUS
Czarface: Czarface Meets Metal Face (Silver Age) MF Doom adds not quite decisive comedy/insanity/gravitas to Deck/7L/Esoteric's not quite supergroup ("Badness of Madness," "MF Czar," "Captain Brunch") ***
G Herbo: Humble Beast (Machine) Chicago, street, basic, reporter, sounds older than he is ("Malcolm," "Red Snow") ***
Saba: The Bucket List Project (Saba Pivot) A mixtape that does its honest best to focus his subset's goals in a world way more mixed up than the mixtape is ("World in My Hands," "Most") **
1800 Seconds: Curated by Pusha T (Mass Appeal) "Curated" my ass—just 10 young rappers who flatter the boss by imitating him, proving that terse is no more surefire a concept than anything else (Cartel Count Up, "Make It Count"; Nita Jonez, "Rockin Heels") *
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