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Poets, Playwrights, and Pranksters: Expert Witness with Robert Christgau

The Dean reviews the 'Hamilton' original cast recording along with the latest from Saul Williams and Kool A.D. and Kassa Overall.
February 19, 2016, 3:20pm

Welcome to Expert Witness with Robert Christgau, the self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics." He currently teaches at NYU and published multiple books throughout his life. For nearly four decades, he worked as the music editor for The Village Voice, where he created the annual Pazz & Jop poll. Every Friday, Noisey will happily publish his long-running critical column. To learn more about him and his life, read his welcome post here.

Hamilton: Original Broadway Cast Recording (Atlantic) To get value from these 142 minutes of audible libretto you must first—this is essential—buy the physical, a double-wide double-CD redolent of the early jewelbox era. Next, play both discs casually a few times, resisting the temptation to snort "This is 'rap'?" Then reserve a few hours and replay it in its entirety while following every word in booklets so cunningly designed you always know who's saying what. If after that you're not taken with how skillfully Lin-Manuel Miranda compresses 30 years of history, sell the thing—it does hog shelf space. Me, I was so gobsmacked I can now hear past its musical peculiarities. Not only isn't this hip-hop, it isn't pop, and not just because the tunes are vestigial. It's theater music in which almost everything is sung and even the spoken parts come with music, like recitative in opera. So naturally the singers are theater singers. They enunciate, hit the notes, act a little. But starting with Manuel in the title role, they don't command the sonic singularities with which pop stars beat off the competition, nor stand out like Gypsy's brassy Ethel Merman or South Pacific tomboy Mary Martin. I can't vouch for the civics-class democracy of Miranda's historical vision and, despite the digs at Jefferson and the nice plays on immigration, find him too subtle as regards slavery. (Nontrivial factoid: both Hamilton and his deadly rival Burr belonged to the New York Manumission Society.) But I can attest that the intrinsic intellectual interest he powers up here is so impressive it's exciting. And I can also report a surprising emotional bonus: two songs about love and death—"Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story" and, even better, the agonized, atypically melodic "It's Quiet Uptown"—that make me tear up a little. Which only happened, to repeat, because I'd read along for two and a half hours. A

Saul Williams: Martyr Loser King (Fader) After undermining a decade of honorable leftwing slam-rap with one of the most joyless pop sellouts in the annals of musical poesy (what? you missed Volcanic Sunlight?), Williams grabs some beats from rapper-turned-rocker Justin Warfield and justifies a lifetime of well-intentioned hype. Where political rage has a way of turning musical headache even when it's as informed and focused as Williams's is, here it's a show of power. Income inequality as death dance; Black Lives Matter as African chant; coltan as cotton as the new slavery. The guy's very nearly in a class with Linton Kwesi Johnson, the most politically astute beatwise songpoet ever. Mantras like "down for some ignorance," "fuck you understand me," and "hacker in your hardrive" have teeth. And "Think Like They Book Say" is warmer than anything on the sellout because it's hot not for love or even sex but for logic--the logic, and hence the politics, of the transsexual option. A MINUS

Peaceful Solutions: Barter 7 (self-released) Stoner alt-rap from Wesleyan and Das Racist graduate Kool A.D., who in late November also posted O.K., a 100-track pay-what-you-want Bandcamp mixtape I wish he'd fucking "curate" and haven't found time for, although for research's sake I enjoyed the seven-minute "Alice Coltrane" OK. With affable sidekick qua passable beatmaker Kassa Overall making it a duo, this August release is somewhat more . . . can I say finished? Nah. Passage taken half at random over an undeveloped loop from the by no means focus track (whatever that would mean with these jokers) "Hot Negro Pause": "Shit that/Huh/It's that shit that/It's that shit that/Make you slip all of the clips out the guns though/Sippin on a Cris but not the racist champagne the Cuban beer/So y'all can know it's a real Cuban here/Happy Nubian New Year." And it goes on, affably and much more than passably. I've never been much of a pothead. But Victor Vazquez's goofily utopian, politically hip benevolence makes more of weed than Jerry Rubin or Dr. Chronic ever did. He's an escape and a comfort, and I wish him enough money to live on. Curated Verse: "Plus green energy/Clean green energy/No frackin' or dependence on foreign oil/Uh tamales in corn husks no foil/Uh cut the billions allotted to military spending and put that shit into education/But save me one spaceship just in case man." A MINUS

Follow Robert Christgau on Twitter and read the archives of his criticism on his website.