We the People: Expert Witness with Robert Christgau
Words on A Tribe Called Quest, Alicia Keys, and more.
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 a number of books over his career including his autobiography, Going Into the City, which was released in 2015 to critical acclaim. 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.
A Tribe Called Quest: We Got It From Here . . . Thank You 4 Your Service (Epic) As it was envisioned, this through-conceived meld of rhythm and voice, harmony and hook, ideas and feelings, life and death would have dawned upon us 11/9 as a collegial reminder in the spirit of its title: OK ma'am, the wolf has skulked away from the door, now let the people shape their destiny. Track one moans "The heat the heat the heat the heat" to signify climate change not law enforcement before it states its cross-racial political purposes with a forthright "It's time to go left and not right." And fundamentally, that was the idea. Of course the hour that ensues isn't uniformly ideological—this is music, their first in decades and their last ever, and music's impulses and necessities are their heart. But not their brain. With everybody home and Busta Rhymes moved into the guest room, the drama is all in reuniting seeker Q-Tip, whose long apprenticeship as a fusion musician finally yields some beats, and family man Phife Dog, who left this mortal plane in March but rhymes all the way to the final track. The album represents both their bond and the conscious black humanism they felt sure the nation was ready for: struggle yoked with work ethic, "forward movement" with "instinctual soul," "answer for cancer" with "learning is free," and damn right race-blind law enforcement. Hillary is a "woman with the wisdom who is leading the way," "The Donald"—Phife rhyming here, no later than March—all "Bloodclot you doing/Bullshit you spewing/As if the country ain't already ruined." The election didn't turn out like they figured. We know. But the music remains, urging us to love each other as much as we can as we achieve a happiness it's our duty to reaccess if we're to battle as all we can be. Its statement of principle didn't get the victory it foresaw. But it remains a triumph. A PLUS
Alicia Keys: Here (RCA) One reason this is her best album since she was a kid is that it extends her nice upbringing into a sphere that's simultaneously raw and political. But a bigger reason is that Swizz Beats defines the funk her adventures in gospel grit demand, evoking Memphis thump while remaining so hip-hop that the samples stay in Nas-Wu-Tribe territory. Lyrically, it sometimes stumbles—cosmetics mess with a girl's identity, we get it. But the beats lend bite and gravity to homilies about mother earth and mother love that bear all the repeating they can stand. A MINUS
Common: Black America Again (Def Jam) Wish so much this all-star showcase was much more than a lecture—so much ("The Day Women Took Over," "Letter to the Free," "Pyramids") **
De La Soul: And the Anonymous Nobody (A.O.I.) Whittling down 300 hours of live funk whilst enlisting Snoop Dogg, Jill Scott, David Byrne, Damon Albarn, and many more, pushing-50 trio set their scattershot sights on the moving targets of musicality and relevance ("Pain," "Memory of . . . [Us]") **