Robert Christgau on Noname's Poetic Breakthrough
The Dean of American Rock Critics reviews Noname's 'Room 25,' The Internet's 'Hive Mind,' Blood Orange's 'Negro Swan,' and Medhane's 'Ba Suba, Ak Jamm.'
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, will be available from Duke University Press in October. 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.
Noname: Room 25 (self-released) I got why hip-hop heads were so besotted with her 2016 Telefone. But back then I felt she wasn't quite there yet—"on the brink of a poetic breakthrough" rather than in flight—and segueing directly from Telefone to Room 25 convinces me I was right. Lovely as Telefone is, Room 25 is standing up and waving as of the hummed piano intro to the 1:35 "Self," and soon "My pussy teachin ninth-grade English / My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism" is rendering "And y'all still thought a bitch couldn't rap huh?" a rhetorical question. I can't resist a few quotes: "Africa's never dead, Africa's always dying," "Globalization's scary and fuckin' is fantastic," "Titties 13K, the pretty costs these days." Or mentioning that though Noname is glad you told her Telefone "saves lives," you should also be aware that she "got no money" and "almost passed out drinking." But delivering all this poetry is the dealmaker: a delicate, even fragile vocal pulse that's also complex and eventful, floating a murmured flow so conversational its rhythmic acuity seems modest, uncalculated. Noname carries the first half of the 35-minute album pretty much alone. But when other vocalists join her—Ravyn Lenae, Phoelix, Smino & Saba—their role is to augment and embellish her sound rather than change it up. Not only is she the boss, she's the source. And I admit it—I like Telefone more now. A
The Internet: Hive Mind (Columbia) Syd has the virtue of enjoying her success without getting a big head about it—she's so sensible she could already be squirreling away Roths and 401-Ks. And fine though she is solo, you can hear why she sticks with her group. Steve Lacy's skittering subtlety on guitar and solid quietude on bass suit what we might as well call her spirituality, a gentleness that never comes across genteel or weak or connects explicitly to her unassuming lesbianism, although you begin to sense a yen for serious romance after enough fooling around. "Look What U Started" is a kissoff song. But not only do you believe she's in the right, you notice how unvindictive she sounds. And then you go back and suss that "Next Time/Humble Pie" posits a second meet-up with a honey she has her eye on before she can finally dare a simple "I said hello." So maybe she's not spiritual after all. Maybe she's just shy. A MINUS
Blood Orange: Negro Swan (Domino) Bullied ambisexual child weaves adult aural tapestry about black depression that's more pleasing in its overall affect than its lyrical-to-meandering musical specifics ("Nappy Wonder," "Charcoal Baby") ***
Medhane: Ba Suba, Ak Jamm (Grand Closing) Depressive hip-hop beatmaking as economic—and professional—struggle ("Garden," "Clouds") *