On Syd's Depth and Resonance: Expert Witness with Robert Christgau
The Dean tackles new albums from Nnamdi Ogbonnaya and Syd, before looking back at recent records by NxWorries and John Legend.
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.
Nnamdi Ogbonnaya: DROOL (Father/Daughter/Sooper) Normally I snort at new rappers claiming "you could never write shit like this." But for starters, Ogbonnaya's not really a rapper. He's a Chicago multi-instrumental quadruple-threat functioning as an alt-r&ber replaces tune with mood as he croon-talks around his wavery beats in a voice that evokes an antique space-organ synth. And I do admire, as he puts it, his writing. Challenging to follow even though they're seldom slurred or speeded up, his lyrics evoke without defining a humorous humanism that takes the immaturity off his subcultural jousting and erotic ups and downs—and thus firms up the stuff that preoccupies most newbies who think you could never write shit like this. Try the adoring "Cindy OsO," the erotic "let gO Of my egO," the overarching "drOOl/drink that." (All strange capitalizations in original. Pray he gets over it.) A MINUS
Syd: Fin (Epic) These days almost all r&b goes for voice-plus-sound rather than voice-plus-song, with the sound ranging from precision track-and-hook to idiosyncratic atmospherics. What distinguishes Odd Future fixture, Internet instigator, and matter-of-fact lesbian Sydney Bennett is that she powers her solo venture with one of the smallest voices in popular music—not tiny, just soft and slender. No fan of power tonsils, I've always been drawn to her brave sighs and whispers, and love how easily her voice carries this music unaugmented by her former guitar and drum kit. I also like how she celebrates an economic success I hope is as permanent as she thinks—"middle to upper class," you don't hear that much. But since love is more important than money, I warm most to these tracks when they turn to eros, and admit that the most winning, "Dollar Bills," is also the only one to avail itself of some male timbre. Very deep. Very resonant. A MINUS
NxWorries: Anderson .Paak & Knxwledge: Yes Lawd! (Stones Throw) Love man projects minimum modicum of empathy with his salable burr yet somehow sounds cuddly even so ("Another Time," "Lyk Dis," "Fkku") ***
John Legend: Darkness and Light (Columbia) "My history has brought me to this place/This power and the color of my face"—not an easy brag to bring off modestly, and the more I listen the more I appreciate the trick ("I Know Better," "Darkness and Light," "Marching Into the Dark") **
Lead photo via Nnamdi Ogbonnaya on Instagram.
Follow Robert Christgau on Twitter.