Robert Christgau on the Bold Pop of Janelle Monáe and Perfume Genius

The Dean of American Rock Critics reviews 'Dirty Computer' and 'No Shape' before sifting through recent records by Taylor Swift, Pink, Sam Smith, Kesha, Lana Del Rey, and Miguel.

|
Jun 1 2018, 4:30pm

L: Taylor Hill/Getty Images
R: Jason Merritt/Getty Images

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

Janelle Monáe: Dirty Computer (Atlantic) A self-made black woman whose intellectual ambition anchors woke-while-the-world-slept politics and whose moves and style enrapture a majority-female international fanbase, Monáe has long been everything you'd want in a musical savior except a compelling musician. Her mentor Prince was so smitten that on his final album he tried to turn into her. But Monáe's voice has always been too thin and her songwriting too intellectual—until now, when she makes a pass at turning into Prince and gets close. Tracks five-six-seven—"Screwed" with its "You fucked the world up now / We'll fuck it all back down" brag, the raspy-rapped autobio "Django Jane," and the folds-of-your-vagina-to-folds-of-your-brain "Pynk"—are a "1999" for 2018 with lyrics that don't stop don't stop, the apex of an album that's designed to have one. Finally Monáe drops the "android" mask, for me a relief, and comes out as a woman-loving woman, for me no surprise insofar as I'd thought about it at all. But she calls herself "pansexual" as opposed to "gay" or "bi" because she wants it all. Too often prosex albums are shallow. While remaining intellectual, this one is more personal than the android dared. A MINUS

Perfume Genius: No Shape (Matador) Title notwithstanding, the most revealing of the many things Mike Hadreas has said about his fourth album concerns the melodies he took it upon himself to fashion first: "I made sure they had a chorus and a bridge—all the things I have never done before because they felt like work." A gay man avowedly uncomfortable in his own body, with the Crohn's disease, erotic asphyxiation fixation, and abated addictions to prove it, Hadreas insisted listeners come to him on 2014's strong-willed Too Bright. But here his music meets the rest of us more than halfway. By all means enjoy how the first three tracks all start with a tease before breaking out the rockets' red glare. I prefer "Just Like Love," where a preteen comes out in front of the social media mirror, to "Slip Away," with its risk-drunk "If you never see 'em coming / You'll never have to hide." But in both cases the music testifies that for hypersensitives like Hadreas boldness is always an achievement worth melodizing about. It bids for solidarity and deserves it. A MINUS

Lana Del Rey: Lust for Life (Interscope/Polydor) Languid self-expressions of considerable theoretical interest, just like the Lana Del Rey character's sexual proclivities used to be ("When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing," "13 Beaches") ***

Taylor Swift: Reputation (Big Machine) It isn't that she completely sounds like a pop star, it's that she completely identifies as one ("This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things," "Call It What You Want") ***

Sam Smith: The Thrill of It All (Deluxe Edition) (Capitol) Where on his debut bonus cuts diluted an intense album, on his star turn they salvage a laxer one ("Scars," "HIM") **

Miguel: War & Leisure (RCA) More leisurely than the title might make you hope, believe, or fear ("City of Angels," "Sky Walker") **

Pink: Beautiful Trauma (RCA) After a last fling with Eminem, she does prove, eventually, that schlock can't bring her down ("Revenge," "Better Life") *

Kesha: Rainbow (RCA) More convincing playing the self-determined sexpot than the goofy nice girl ("Woman," "Let 'Em Talk") *

Follow Robert Christgau on Twitter.