tUnE-yArDs, Nikki Nack (4AD)
If BiRd-BrAiNs was personal art transcending lo-fi constraints and w h o k i l l a big-budget expansion of intent, here’s where Merrill Garbus fully puts poli-sci global citizenry to work alongside her looped hand claps, less my-country-tis-of-thee and more we-said-we-wouldn’t-let-em-take-our-land. Because this remains horrible background music and because the Jonathan Swift puppet show interlude is arch, it’s easy to accuse Garbus of purposeful antagonism, smothering pop instincts beneath bad faith post-production tomfoolery. But the only development getting me down is the ukulele's absence, an abandonment more than made up for via bass lines deeper than Jah Wobble, synthesizer squiggles doing battle with ring game cadences, and a vocal presence few dare call soul. Those Caribbean polyrhythms seem as expertly internalized as the Mbuti polyphony of old, although that hasn’t stopped scolds from clucking tongues over Garbus the cultural tourist/naif, an indignity rarely visited upon the scholarly likes of, oh, David Byrne. This isn’t draping oneself in exotica to better channel The Other; it’s utilizing every musical tool at your disposal to attack The Man. So she preaches empowerment through discourse (“Oh my god I use my lungs”), takes back the night (“I mean it / don’t beat up my body”), decries neocolonialism in all its forms (“ruined by the boats of rich folks”). I wouldn’t claim the pidgin English of “Rocking Chair” is this New Englander’s savviest flourish. But a few lines of Creole stuck inside “Water Fountain” don’t make Garbus a cultural imperialist comparable to the water-war waging IMF she pillories. As for my-country-tis-of-thee: “I come from the land of slaves / let’s go Redskins, let’s go Braves”.
Le1F, Hey EP (Terrible / XL)
Not sure it bodes well when a hip-hop up-and-comer who worries aloud about riding a non-trending beat drops an EP containing a “cleaned-up” version of the 2012 tune Mackelmore heisted away from him. Still, fresh beats aren’t the (only) point. Of course Khalif Diouf’s queer gaze enriches hip-hop: “I’m a man’s man / literally / damn”. More importantly, his delivery matches the production - direct, lascivious, sly. Whether swooning over Loubitons or cat-calling twinked-out Ukrainian cuties, he’s a self-proclaimed innocent until proven filthy male MC who’d be glad to accommodate any “educated black hottie” interested in licking his toes. Asks the hip-hop question of the year, too: “How many batty boys can you fit in a jeep?”
Chimurenga Renaissance, riZe vadZimu riZe (Brick Lane)
It’s cool that Shabazz Palaces has its own posse, although neither THEESatisfaction nor this Tendai “Baba” Maraire spinoff can hope to match the dank beats and woozy defiance of Black Up. Still, Maraire’s Zimbabwean heritage imbues these tracks with a lithe complexity that coalesces into something delightful - dancehall choruses enhanced with ngoma and mbira (“B.A.D.”), fat synth lines adorning the Thomas Mapfumo-indebted “Wow”. All grooves bump in support of a liberation narrative celebrating the hopes of a Black American Dream at war against multinationals (“you’re the one who started this credit thing”) and the cops, the latter coming under incessant, glorious attack (“so what, you got your cuffs, pig / I don’t give a fuck”). But unless I’m completely misreading that line about how Shiite sisters don’t leave their husbands because they “stay covered,” gripes about silicone tits and gold-diggers suggest once again women aren’t equal partners in Maraire’s anti-colonial festivities. Which, um, limits its utility.