Shadows in the Cave

In commercial hip hop's worst moment in years, I went spelunking, and found more good stuff than expected, with more pending and plenty of well-meaning pretension behind me.


AKROBATIK
Balance
(Coup d'État)
His name guest is Mr. Lif, and if that doesn't convince you this stand-up Bostonian doesn't have a clue, soon he's boasting about the "balance" he maintains between rappers who "got too many big words" and those who "bust too many slugs." Whether as vocabulary in the rathskeller or jewelry in the video, bigger is better, right? Sanity, clarity, sharp wits, efficient beats—where's the market? But just in case you're dull enough to get a buzz off articulated normality, note that he has good sexual politics, good cultural politics, and good political politics without getting preachy about any of them, and that after two plays you'll remember every hook. Right, hook. A MINUS

ELECTRIC SIX
Fire
(XL)
Hey, I thought our "scene" had dibs on rockin' affectation. But since Iggy invented the shit, it's only just that these Detroiters do it better—than Interpol, etc. Nukes and conflagrations, gay bars and MILF porn, discos and Taco Bells, their metaphors know no conscience and not much sense. They exist only to rock your world. If you don't let them, you're the stupid one. A MINUS

FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE
Welcome Interstate Managers
(S-Curve)
Their tunes have always seemed too facile, but seven years divided by three albums doesn't equal glib, especially with those years deepening their lyricism rather than their cynicism. Failure's been good for them too, putting meat on the failures they imagine—their young drunk with a dark future in sales scares up our pity, and though their young quarterback will complete his pass, they know nobody has "All Kinds of Time." Note that the protagonist in the next song is caught in a traffic jam. If they keep going, they may even feel a few females. A MINUS

MACY GRAY
The Trouble With Being Myself
(Epic)
I know she's supposed to be an eccentric hipster—helps explain that grit-on-velvet voice, which seems so very outré with female pop options cut back to girlish simplicity and operatic aspiration. But except on the magnificent "I Committed Murder"—revisited here in a jokey variation that doesn't wash—her songwriting hasn't been up to the role. Now, done with that id shit, she finds her voice by pleading with her man to stay or come back as the case may be. Her big argument: "She Don't Write Songs About You." She's pretty, she's rich, she cooks, she reads, she keeps house, she gives good head. Macy will grant all that. But she don't write songs. B PLUS

MCENROE
Disenfranchised
(Peanuts and Corn)
This Vancouver rapper and label owner takes keeping it real and writing what you know further than any other label owner would let him. In my favorite song he tracks payables and receivables and remarks existentially, "In the end we're all living off consignment." But that's not the only one where he describes how dull his life is and then makes that seem interesting. Playing and mixing keyb or guitar over cut-up drums, he thinks out loud in an utterly un-street cadence that reaches across the northland from Buck 65 to Slug out to B.C. In the end you not only feel you know this hard-working guy, you want to find out where he's going and wish him godspeed. Subsistence hip hop—can it survive? Not forever. Order some now. A MINUS

PANJABI MC
Beware
(Sequence)
It's 1967, you just ripped the cellophane off an Elmore James album, and for a while there you hardly know what hit you. Not until track three or four do you begin wondering whether the material is all aces, the singing everything you'd hoped. Only then, wham, up pops "Dust My Broom" or one of its cousins again. That's how it is with the best bhangra album ever to come my way. Not that the filler's just filler. Rajinder Rai knows there are more hooks and vocal flavors where "Mundian To Bach Ke" came from, and if none of them spells follow-up in God Bless Xenophobia, they'll keep interested parties going. Nevertheless, this album begins where it ends because a genre has found its signature riff. I love Rajinder Rai's version. I love Jay-Z's version. When Linkin Park does a version I'll dig that too. A MINUS

RAGGA RAGGA RAGGA! 2003
(Greensleeves)
Fun as they are, these functionally carnal hard-electro hits can't compare to the eccentricities of VP's Dancehall 101, still the primer for outsiders willing to believe that Jamaican music can't be one roaring mass of dick-proud patois just because they keep forgetting the difference between Cutty Ranks and his brother Shabba. Absent are not just Shaggy-style choruses, a relief, but the extreme weirdness that marked, say, "Good Hole College" and "Coca Cola Shape." The songs same out second half, and I'll take Missy and Timbo over Beenie and Jammy in a backwards minute. But on the whole, this gets the job done. Eccentric enough are Elephant Man's "Fuck U Sign," which establishes the blunt tone early, and Vybz Kartel's Egyptian beat, as its 19 rivals on Greensleeves' Egyptian comp have already proven to the uncounted adepts who can tell them apart. A MINUS

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