Robert Christgau on the Weird Worlds of Emperor X and MF Doom

The Dean of American Rock Critics reviews three records from Chad Matheny's indie project, and three from Daniel Dumile's metal-faced hip-hop alter-egos.

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Jun 30 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.

Emperor X: Oversleepers International (Tiny Engines) Pushing 40 now, Berlin-based Jacksonville native Chad Matheny makes his living as a musician on tours that I assume include residencies—among his many Bandcamp wares is a commissioned work entitled 10,000-Year Earworm to Discourage Habitation Near Nuclear Waste Depositories. But although all his music comes with clean, computer-crafted abstract art, he comes naturally to a frugal, tech-savvy ecology-firster's skepticism of physical product. No surprise then that this is his first actual CD since Bar/None's 2011 Western Teleport—one so obscure or perversely coded it didn't show up on Gracenote when I imported it into my iTunes. Yet it would seem that he does regard physicals as special, because nowhere else does the music feature songs end-to-end instead of sucking you in with a handful and then dematerializing into strummed or noodled jams with vocal accoutrements. True, this one achieves a third of its 50-minute length by means of a quarter-hour of subliminal electropulse at the end of a closer called "5-Hour Energy, Poland, 2017" as well as bridging its halves with what is essentially a four-minute vamp. Nevertheless, the 10 songs are songs. All evoke a hard-scrabbling world traveler often caught in but never daunted by border hassles, medical bureaucracy, and crap technology. Bergson and Schopenhauer also come up. Yet amid riots and dodgy bank accounts, Matheny sounds about as chipper as a working musician on a deteriorating planet can. In fact, the whole thing is quite an up if you give it half a chance. A MINUS

JJ Doom: Key to the Kuffs (Lex) After 2009's Born Like This I lost track of this London-born, Long Island-raised Trinidadian-Zimbabwean MC, whose sibilantly mush-mouthed flow has long rippled and pooled comically and imperturbably over signifying beats and spoken-word samples often his own. It didn't help that the former Daniel Dumile changed his handle from MF Doom, or that where MF stood for various things, the obvious never explicitly one of them, JJ merely honors his new beatmaking partner Jneiro Jarel. Nor did it help that he was compelled by the INS to resettle in London, apparently because he never became a U.S. citizen. So on his 2012 album this hyperaware jokester plays the Brit. One track goes on about "Cockney rhymin' slang," and then there's "Guv'nor," hardly the only song where the political mindfulness that's always been there becomes a focus rather than a substratum. Here be GMOs and dead Indians and food and water as a "secure investment" and an earthquake in Iceland and a discourse on melanin. Here also be the priceless couplet: "Not to interrupt / But anybody else notice time speeding up?" A MINUS

Emperor X: The Orlando Sentinel (self-released) In 2014, a testicular cancer survivor constructs weedy-to-wispy electronic/guitar-strum/handclap songs about getting your parents Medicaid and cell plans, President Sarkozy's bake sale, AI swim laws (??), Kafka shopping at Primark, dying young with resources and integrity intact, and just generally proving the Politburo right because we've got all this capital and what good does it do anyone? I wouldn't say he sounds happy about this, or much amused. But he is philosophical, because after all: "One good effect of the crash / Now every altered state gets classified as work—at least enough to prevent an epidemic of a baseless adolescent philosophy." Which scans, in its way. B PLUS

JJ Doom: Bookhead EP (Lex) These repurposed bonus tracks from the "Butter Edition" of Key to the Kuffs cue Doom up at his most musical and connected, with guest productions so compelling they put Jarel's functional beats in perspective. The rhymes tend bleak, mad, kind of fucked up. Mixes by Beck, Jonny Greenwood, and others accept the mood for what it is and put the haunted, stormy, convulsive thing across. B PLUS

MF Doom Featuring Big Benn Klingon: Expektoration... Live (Gold Dust) Quashing those imposter rumors, Daniel Dumile fully inhabits his signature persona to reprise Mm.. Food and Operation: Doomsday stuff not quite like the originals ("Act 2") **

Emperor X: Central Hug/Friendarmy/Fractal Dunes (self-released) Assuming this 2005 "release" is a triple-"EP," the four-song Central Hug is all-A and the other two pretty duddy—winningly unkempt political songcraft fronting losingly strummed-droned songcraft ("The Citizens of Wichita," "Raytracer") *

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