A Downloader's Diary (6): January 2011

by Michael Tatum

After a few setbacks, I present the first Downloader's Diary of 2011 -- I solemnly promise never to be late again. For the majority of the next two months, I'll be trolling through Tom Hull's "Rhapsody Streamnotes" and Robert Christgau's new "Expert Witness" blogs for prospective goodies, with any luck discovering a few interesting items on my own. Speaking of the Dean, I've been asked a few times if I'll continue writing this column given that Christgau has (thankfully) launched the newest format of the Consumer Guide -- ostensibly the reason I returned to the rockcrit arena in the first place -- and the answer is a resounding "it's too late to stop now." In fact, for the first time since 2004, I voted in the Village Voice's Pazz and Jop poll -- for those interested, I'll post my top 10 records and singles on the Downloader's Diary page on Facebook. Reviewing a little over a hundred and fifty records in six months, either in relatively long capsules, quickie blurbs, or merely designating them as "trash" -- would it sound a little crazy if I told you I felt I hadn't listened to enough music last year? Perhaps that's because I've never considered myself much of an expert witness, more an expert wit -- which means I plan on spending 2011 being as entertaining as humanly possible, and hopefully finding some great music on the way.

Calle 13: Entren Los Que Quieran (Sony Latin) From K'naan's Troubadour to Out Here's recent Yes We Can compilation, international hip hop records have reinforced the oft-held preconception that good records of the genre speak to us Americans in the language that most of us speak first: English. Except when the "we/us" shifts from America to, say, Puerto Rico, do the rules change? How do Spanish-speaking stepbrothers René "Residente" Pérez and Eduardo "Visitante" Cabra perceive such American totems as Eminem and Outkast, whose lyrics they most likely only know from trots? I'm betting the exact same way we perceive this remarkable record: bangin'. Beginning with a wicked introduction parodying Spanish television and only occasionally falling back on the speeded-up reggaeton that made them famous, arranger Visitante dips into the genre pool without shame: Bollywood, spaghetti westerns, Hawaiian ukuleles, and good old alt-rock, the latter on a rousing stomper that gets the party started like "Gasoline Dreams" on Stankonia. Residente ratchets up the excitement in his raps via escalating vocal inflections that generate heat whether you habla en español or not, while the vocal hooks, with the help of their sister Ileana "PG-13" Pérez, convey everything from sarcasm to tenderness, from mordant irony to wistful nostalgia. And if that fails to grab you, they've got fist-pumping hooks that need no translation: "Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Or: "Bleachh, bleachh, bleachh!" They've fully converted this monolingual former Lit major without the benefit of a lyric sheet. And when I take it to my Spanish-speaking cousins' house to help me fill in the blanks, I bet I'll love it even more. A

Care Bears on Fire: Girls Like it Loud (S-Curve) "What's that you're reviewing?" my wife calls down from her office. "The Gossip Girl soundtrack?" I suppose it could be argued that the no-doubt autobiographical "ATM," written from the point of view of an upper-middle class girl sick of her BFF sticking her with the check, is about as un-punk as you can get -- what's next, a rave-up about cashing in your trust fund? But I like that these girls keep it honest: they write from what they know, discovering themselves as they're discovering these riffs, these tunes, this attitude, this music. What bothers me, despite the liveliness and catchiness of the songs, is the slightly calculated tone of it all -- like they're mastering a form they've studied from the inside-out, a subject they can recite by rote like their Hebrew or their multiplication tables. That's why I'm fairly certain that they're responsible for digging up the obscure Marbles cover -- you might say it supports their thesis. It's also why I'm sure that the charming but too-easy Tears for Fears cover was suggested by producer Adam Schlesinger, who should have resisted the temptation to tidy up the sound. Maybe next time they can do a one-off EP for Kill Rock Stars. Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney are better role models for growing riot grrls than the Donnas, anyway. A–

Chromeo: Business Casual (Atlantic) This cheeky Canadian duo hasn't found much of a hip cache with critics of my age, probably because their sacred mission is to remind them, in the most baldly hilarious manner possible, of how bad the top 40 music of our youth was, no matter how much Rob Sheffield heroically protests otherwise. The jokes start with their chosen handles -- Patrick Gemayel goes by "P Thugg," while David Macklovitch styles himself "Dave 1" -- and extend to their gleefully cheesy cover art, which depicts a secretary (portrayed from the waist down, perfect posterior to the camera), obsessively making multiple copies of the duo's publicity shots, who for their part look primped to star in a hair gel advert. Their zippy electrofunk, which pretends that nothing of import has occurred in R&B since Klymaxx and "Super Freak," gives me the giggles, while their anemic vocals need all the special effects they can get their hands on -- when Solange Knowles pops in for a perky cameo on the irresistible "When the Night Falls," it can't help but grab your attention. Their pick up lines include "I'm not contagious," "Don't turn the lights on/Cause tonight I want to see you in the dark," and my favorite, "I know it's been a little while/But your number is the only one I've found." She's not so sure ("I don't know what you want from me -- I'm not your bloody social worker"), but they remain undeterred. And when playing the chansonnier fails to usher her behind closed doors -- "J'ai Claqué La Porte," very cute -- they complain: "If we can't be grownups/Then we won't grow up." Tell it like it is Dave 1, tell it like it is. A–

El DeBarge: Second Chance (Geffen) The chance referred to in the title isn't a commercial one -- the DeBarge family's prodigal son has had a few of those, the last major one being in 1994, Reprise's sadly forgotten Heart, Mind and Soul -- but rather a spiritual one: this follows a two year stint in federal prison capping years of cocaine abuse that the artist swears are behind him. "I really wanted to know that I could still do it again and when I heard my voice I was just like, 'Wow,'" he told the Washington Examiner, and while you're free to raise your eyebrow, the impressive first half of this record at least has me in awe. Compare this underrated talent to other falsetto soul men: by an analogous age, Eddie Kendricks had blown his voice on his own coke habit, while Smokey Robinson's career faltered after his 1979 Where's There's Smoke, right about the time Michael Jackson, Prince, and especially hip hop changed the rules forever. By contrast, forty-nine year old Eldra still sounds as almost as boyish as he did when he recorded the gorgeous In a Special Way -- check out how he soars above that treble clef on the celestial "Heaven." Meanwhile, he adjusts to musical fashion a lot more naturally than his Motown exemplars and even peers, something he coyly acknowledges on the 50 Cent feature -- in which he vows to reach the object of his affections by Blue Tooth, Palm Pilot, whatever it takes -- that also functions as an extended metaphor on his musical modus operandi ("switch up the format," indeed). Wish I could say the R&B audience, which tends to champion those who actually are young rather than those who merely sound young, will reward him for all this effortless beauty. But somehow, I think for Eldra the accomplishment in itself is its own reward: "I'm not giving up/I'm here to stay," he vows in the lovely title track, and punctuating the sentiment with a breathtaking high note, I believe him. B+

Girl Talk: All Day (Illegal Art) There's no denying that mash-up DJ Gregg Gillis isn't an expert as what he does -- honed and perfected over a period of two years by testing rough mixes at various club dates, this is even more seamless, if slightly more mellow, than 2008's classic Feed the Animals. As befits an artist committed to making Attention Deficit Disorder sing, your concentration won't wander for a minute during this solid, highly danceable, hour-plus suite of impossible juxtapositions. But while last time he mined pop music's vast history for its greatest licks to dress up the crass likes of UGK and the YoungBloodz, here he merely appropriates well-known bits from famous songs -- some classic, some so-so, and some I wouldn't dream of listening to even if the point was to prove to my friends how ironic I was. I applaud Gillis' musical open-mindness, which is probably a great deal sincerer than mine, but some of these jumbles just don't mesh -- Missy Elliot rapping over the Ramones okay, but Joey Ramone yelping "Blitzkrieg Bop" over the Doors' clumsy "Waiting for the Sun?" L'il Wayne's stoned vocal for "A Milli" over the tinkling piano of Joe Jackson's "Steppin' Out?" And call me reactionary, prudish, whatever -- while Journey's corny "Faithfully" actually brought Feed the Animals (with a little help from OutKast's Andre 3000) to an emotionally satisfying close, no matter how, er, pure Gillis' intentions, there has to be a better way of bridging the generational gap than peppering John Lennon's "Imagine" with Gucci Mane's "I'm the Shit." A–

Bruno Mars: Doo-Wops and Hooligans (Elektra/Asylum) Although the former Gene Hernandez has clearly fashioned one of the pop debuts of the year, I'm not entirely convinced by his penchant for readymades, which in the hands of others appropriate familiar melodic and arrangement ideas in service of lyrics usually more surprising than the familiar friendship, marriage, and laziness tropes Mars falls back on. On the other hand, the punk-Motown fusion of "Runaway Lover," which gets its dirty business done in 2:28, is new to my ears, and the first two cuts rank among the best singles in the year. "Just the Way You Are" is U2's "With or Without You" done as teen pop -- you can tell because never once does Mars entertain the idea that time will change the object of his affections whether he likes it or not. Perhaps that's why I prefer the desperation of "Grenade," best described as a re-write of Kanye West's "Love Lockdown" by a guy who can actually hit those high notes without the benefit of Auto-Tune. I hope this all conveys one of the record's greatest strengths, Mars' slipperiness: his difficulty to pigeonhole. Maybe that's why my favorite track is the explosive closer: a collaboration with Cee-Lo Green and B.o.B. that gains power from its complete thematic ambiguity. Just what lies in store for the listener "on the other side?" The dark side of fame? A night of drugs and debauchery at the Chateau Marmont? The love that dareth not speak its name? "It's better if you don't understand," Mars assures us forebodingly, a sure sign this smart songwriter is only going to get more compelling once he makes that leap himself. A–

Nicki Minaj: Beam Me Up Scotty (mixtape) I don't completely buy this ex-Red Lobster waitress's half self-effacing, half pretentious assertion that her quick rise to fame isn't attributable to her talent, connections, or good looks, but rather to because right now she "wants it the most," but I certainly do laud her self-starting attitude. In hindsight, the impetus behind this download-only mixtape was pure marketing: to build excitement in the hip hop community, to establish Minaj's presence. Released in early 2009, long before she was signed to Universal even though it must have been clear to everyone around her it was in the cards, this relatively high-profile project is one of the reasons Pink Friday (reviewed below) went platinum only a mere month after its late November release -- certainly, guest star and acknowledged "sensei" L'il Wayne applied lessons learned from the tireless avalanche of mixtapes he flooded the net with in the months leading up to Tha Carter III. The conceptualization that makes Minaj such a breakthrough for female rappers wouldn't come until her next mixtape, early 2010's transitional but key Barbie World (also reviewed below) -- when Rick Ross claims he considered Minaj merely "a great entertainer" before he heard her drop her verse on Kanye West's "Monster," this is primarily what he's referring to. But except for the vile, anti-snitch "Five-O," this is very entertaining indeed, peaking with a knockout trifecta in the center all the more amazing because although each brings in a heavy hitter or two, Minaj remains the center of attention: she gets Gucci Mane to cop to his own shopping problem, shows Lil Wayne how to rock that Auto-Tune on the fierce DJ Khaled steal "Go Hard," and precedes Drake's enlightened sex jam with a monologue that will inspire fits of premature ejaculation in bedrooms all across America. Now if only there was some way I could digitally erase all of those annoying Trap-a-holics IDs that pop up at random. And if I wanted to "bring that beat back" I wouldn't do it mid-song -- I'd just wait until said song was over. Though that part where Drake brags he'll make Nicki's pussy whistle the theme song from The Andy Griffith Show -- is there any way I can make that my ringtone? A–

Nicki Minaj: Pink Friday (Universal Motown) "Style is substance," Vladmir Nabokov insisted to detractors who derided his technically innovative but resolutely message-free novels, and if anything that's the one thing that's bothered me about female rappers, whether major, minor, or inconsequential. Traditionally, they've either functioned as correctives to their often sexist male counterparts (Queen Latifah, Yo-Yo), strived to show that they could talk just as dirty as said counterparts (Foxy Brown, jealous L'il Kim), or operated as foils to their bepenised bandmates (Ladybug, Lauryn Hill). Onika Miraj is a great deal more ambitious, aiming for the type of persona mongering favored by Eminem, except her ego, id, and superego aren't nearly as compartmentalized. Nor is she as interested in hammering home ironies to put a point across -- she's the grownup equivalent of a little girl playing with dolls and talking to imaginary friends while her parents are arguing in the room next door. That's why I love the sung hooks that she doesn't have to lean on hired help for -- it's where she reveals the "real" woman underneath mischievous Nicki Minaj and rowdy Roman Zolanski, which explains why clichés like "You see right through me," "I can't seem to silence all these voices in my head," and "Will you take me to be how I am" resonate a lot more strongly than they would elsewhere. It's also what lifts the anguished identity crisis song "Fly" up to the clouds, why the coy "Your Love" works better here than on Barbie World. Her message goes beyond giving a shout-out to "all the girls who never thought they could win." -- I say as with so many rappers of the first rank, the medium is the message, that her style is all the substance she needs. In theory anyway, Nabokov would have been proud. A

Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Roc-A-Fella) Rob Sheffield avers: "Nobody is making music this daring and weird." Christopher Monsen astutely counters: "Nobody this popular is making popular sounding music this daring and weird." To which I would amend: "Not only does no one in the mainstream or indie hip hop world boast a vision this ambitious or grandiose, Kanye West is probably the only man with the money, connections, legal team, studio time, and outright hubris to make it come to fruition." Who else would hire a cavalcade of famous backing singers, from Drake to Elton to Fergie to Alicia Keys, and arrange them not en masse, à la "We Are the World," but separate them so each can be heard in his or her individual glory? Who else would corral samples from artists as disparate as King Crimson, Aphex Twin, Manfred Mann, Manu Dibango, and Bon Iver on the same record and make the end result sound symphonic, cinematic? Sure he's upstaged by the superior rapping talents of Jay-Z, Raekwon, and the scene-stealing Nicki Minaj -- but only because he can see the larger design at work, that each of this record's discrete elements, from the star cameos to the background extras, functions as one more Polaroid in a monolithic photo-mosaic, which when viewed as a totality reveals nothing less than a brutal self-portrait of a self-proclaimed douchebag who has no qualms opening up the vault of his troubled mind to the world, if only because he knows that vault holds treasure as much as it does turmoil. But my heart doesn't break for his alienated stardom, his inability to love, or even the imaginary daughter he claims he's already lost to his self-destructive ways in the thundering "All of the Lights." My heart breaks because he's a douchebag capable of creating a work of art this unapologetically beautiful. A

Honorable Mentions

Die Antwoord: $O$ (Cherrytree/Interscope) These South Africans aren't rappers or ravers, they're more like performance artists -- but even so I admire their quirky hits more than I do their interminable playlets ("Enter the Ninja," "Evil Boy," "Wat Kyk Ja?") ***

Rihanna: Loud (Def Jam) Hard for me to take the pro forma S&M opener too seriously from a survivor of domestic violence -- besides, all it means is that like so many lesser R&B thrushes, the only thing she's a "slave" to is her producers ("Love to Hear You Lie, pt. 2," "Cheers (Drink to That)," "What's My Name") ***

Nicki Minaj: Barbie World (mixtape) Dollhouse as workshop, tinkering with a lite R&B I'm glad she thought twice about ("Fuck U Silly," "Out My Face") ***

Superchunk: Majesty Shredding (Merge) Their nostalgia for their lost heyday sounds more enticing than the supposed heyday itself did ("Digging for Something," "Crossed Wires") **

Badly Drawn Boy: It's What I'm Thinking (Part One: Photographing Snowflakes) (The End) Next in the series: Cataloging Grains of Sand and Waiting for Flowers to Bloom ("I Saw You Walk Away," "In Safe Hands") **

R. Kelly: Love Letters (Jive) Dressed on the cover like Jamie Foxx in Ray and sounding mostly like the Stevie Wonder of In Square Circle, he's "retro" only in the sense that he hammers the bejeezus out of his refrains ("Taxi Cab," "Love Is") **

The Black Eyed Peas: The Beginning (Interscope) At the end of the all-night party, even the finest of champagnes tends to go flat ("Light up the Night," "Love You Long Time") **

Glasser: Ring (True Panther) Just what we needed: an indie rock Enya ("Apply") *


Bilal: Airtight's Revenge (Plug Research) Despite once being a member of the Philadelpha neo-soul commmune led by the Roots, which led to him contributing to a strong track on Common's Like Water for Chocolate, Bilal Oliver's solo career never took off -- his Interscope debut flopped critically and commercially, its followup was shelved, and his major label contract went poof. Such a backstory entices naïve rock critics who think that corporations don't understand Great Art, and often corportions don't -- but that doesn't mean that this perpetual also-ran has gone and made his own Voodoo or There's a Riot Goin' On, either. Oliver's tuneless, clunky synth-funk is heavy on texture, low on excitement, devoid of tune, and totally empty in the head. The vacuous ghetto melodrama "Flying" boasts a Perils of Pauline-style plot so laughable it wouldn't pass as a made-for-TV movie on the Lifetime channel: after her coke-dealing father gets shot by the Feds, the heroine stows away on a train, becomes a "foster child" of the streets, finds work as a stripper, "breaks her back" on the pole, and ends up strung out on painkillers. All that's missing is a subplot in which she's loses her major-label contract because her music sucks, essentially the subtext of several other songs here, including the unlistenable "Levels." "Play this song for nothing," he grumpily intones over and over. I say start writing actual songs and someone might consider giving you money for them. C+

John Legend & the Roots: Wake Up! (Columbia) The problem with this record isn't the greatest R&B group in the world -- the problem is John Stephens, a Legend only if his publicist says so. My brother has actually converted me to a few of Legend's better-known hits, but even at best those hits are pop trifles -- well-intended though he is, the man just doesn't have the muscle or the grit to convey the anger that the best of these obscure, Vietnam-era protest numbers deserve. Compare how "Hard Times" comes alive when Black Thought rips into the bridge to Legend crooning in the coda about washing down Oreos and Spam with swigs of Thunderbird, as if any of those supposed inner-city staples ever crossed his mouth (no jokes about Oreos, please). Compare how Legend plaintively recalls Bill Withers' monologue at the very beginning of "I Can't Write Left Handed" to Withers' caustic delivery of that monologue on the classic original recording. Compare Kirk Douglass's blazing guitar solo on that same song to the only non-cover here, the simpy Legend ballad "Shine." Maybe Ahmir Thompson can recycle the tough backing tracks of "Hard Times" and "Prepared for What" for the next Roots record. B-

!!!: Strange Weather, Isn't It? (Warp)

Carl Barât: Carl Barât (Arcady)

Elvis Costello: National Ransom (Lost Highway)

Curren$y: Pilot Talk 2 (Roc-a-Fella)

Natalie Merchant: Leave Your Sleep (Nonesuch)

Jazmine Sullivan: Love Me Back (RCA)

Usher: Raymond v. Raymond [Deluxe Edition] (LaFace)

Suzanne Vega: Close-Up: Vol. 2, People and Places (Amanuensis Productions)

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