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Robert Christgau on Old School Alt-Rap's New Dawn

The Dean of American Rock Critics takes on the new album from The Perceptionists and Oddisee's recent LP, 'The Iceberg.'
Photo via Mr. Lif on Instagram.

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.


The Perceptionists: Resolution (Mello Music) On their 2005 debut, quick, clear, literate, Boston-based, Bajan-American rappers Mr. Lif and Akrobatik sounded more musical trading timbres as a duo than holding forth on their worthy solo albums—little guy Lif clipped and cool and pitched deeper, Akrobatik the good-natured jock. A dozen years later, as 42-year-olds who've each survived a brush with non-gangsta death—Akrobatik from an aortic aneurysm, Mr. Lif in a tour bus gone over a cliff—they lead their belated follow-up with three tracks that drop more political science than any TrumpTime hip-hop to date: Big Pharma and body armor, tax laws and proportional representation, racial solidarity and cross-racial solidarity, "treason" in a "world out of control." Given that Lif was criticizing Obama's monetary policies in 2009, this is no surprise. But it's certainly satisfying. Not everything that follows is so right on. But in a kind of compensation, "When Push Comes to Shove" radiates more love than "4:44." A MINUS

Oddisee: The Iceberg (Mello Music) This 32-year-old Somali-Afro-American from the D.C. suburbs articulates his wordly-wise raps over quicksilver jazz-funk beats that might as well be live and often are. Of course he's political, as in "I'm from black America, this is just another year" or "You around here acting like we equal but we greater." But what I love is his philosophical and psychological interests: conditioning as destiny, biology as destiny, how human beings acquire and apply knowledge, mental illness as a by-product of oppression, the special perils of the African-American middle class, the special burdens of the artist whose immigrant parents dreamed he would have a recognizable career. There's a love song so twisty I hope he came out on the other side. And there's also a song where he figures out "I just want to be happy/free/left alone/me." So I hope and half believe he did. "No trophy on the mantle but I got a mantle," he brags. Attaboy. A MINUS


Murs: Captain California (Strange Music, Inc.) His Romeo and Juliet thing is called "Shakespears on the Low," but I keep thinking Stendhal—The Red and the Blue, as fucked up and tribal as ever ("GBKW [God Bless Kanye West]," "One Uh Those Days," "1000 Suns") ***

Brother Ali: All the Beauty in This Whole Life (Rhymesayers Entertainment) Stories to tell, arguments to make, and money to take home to the family, which is all an old-school alt-rapper can ask ("Uncle Usi Taught Me," "Before They Called Me White") **

Public Enemy: Nothing Is Quick in the Desert (self-released) Giving it away isn't phoning it in, but I wish their sharpest line had a song attached and find that Ice-T's scornful 16 cuts deeper than all of Chuck's gruff outrage ("If You Can't Join Em Beat Em," "SPEak!") **

Follow Robert Christgau on Twitter.