Drake, Take Care (Cash Money/ Young Money Entertainment/ Universal Republic)
Transcending his technical limitations once again (really – name a comparable superstar with less charisma), yet another soulful Canadian demands 80 minutes of our time to mope and sentimentalize over such personal tragedies as his shift into a new tax bracket and concerns over losing one’s game. Not that he isn’t good natured about such things, noting that cash scored from a bar mitzvah gig will help pay his brother’s legal fees and admitting he could use some constructive criticism (“I had someone tell me I fell off/ ooh, I needed that”). But his upward mobility comes with growing pains and more than a little conspicuous consumption, like when he rushes to fill in details about high-rolling dining experiences that don’t quite compute – when was the last time the French Laundry’s tasting menu offered straight-up scallops, and wouldn’t the sommelier recommend pairing it with something more acidic than “dolce”? Such quibbles aside, focus on more insightful moments like “Look What You’ve Done,” and note Drake remains honest enough to surround himself with heavy talents that risk outshining him for the simple reason that he wants things to sound good. So Lil’ Wayne and Andre 3000 drop by for “The Real Her,” Birdman swaggers into the middle of “We’ll Be Fine,” and The Weeknd acquits himself well as the career guest spot guy he is. Despite all the help, the mood Drake sets is all his own, and in its lengthy, single-minded exploration of dark r&b, it brings to mind nothing less than D’Angelo’s Voodoo. Not that Take Care approaches that masterpiece in either conceptual reach or sound, less interested in forging a new path for black music than in defining a specific moment in contemporary black pop. Obviously, defining requires less heavy lifting than forging, and less guts. But note two album highlights that rise above the murk in unique ways, the Rihanna-featured title track and the 40-produced “Marvins Room”. On the former, xx head honcho Jamie Smith reworks his earlier collaboration with Gil Scott-Heron into an infectious and haunting pop showstopper. On the latter, Drake again risks narcissistic self-pity by collating a drunken dial with Marvin Gaye’s legacy. Give him credit for undercutting his own stature by building the song as much around a no-bullshit “are you drunk right now?” challenge from the other line as his own murmured excuses.
Nacho Picasso, For The Glory (self-released free download)
It figures that this Seattle rapper started making noise in indie-rap circles around the same time his fellow Emerald City peeps Shabazz Palaces dropped the finest hip-hop album of the year, but don’t let that distract you from this less-hyped mixtape. Musically, it really ain’t all that much, heavy on synthesizers and locked into a remarkably consistent ambling lope that risks flatness, at least for sample-loving purists like me (although “Dynamite” sure sounds like it snagged something out of “O Superman”). But if like me you also value flow, this Cloud Nice crew member’s sloppy drawl will carry you through tracks that defiantly spurn narrative in favor of outlandish boasts, obsessive rhyming, and the kind of word-mad wordplay far too many rappers wimp out on. ‘Boasting’ almost doesn’t cover it – Nacho practices the tricky art of gasconade. Posing on the cover as a member of King Arthur’s Court, he spends an entire track (“Marvel”) comparing himself to that comic book line’s action heroes, making clear he considers the term “graphic novels” a bourgeois convention. Plus, he opens “Benjamin Segal” with a nod to Romulus and Remus, tells John Stamos to go fuck himself, and claims superiority over others with his extensive tattoos cited as proof (“I’m a masterpiece / he’s just lines and letters”). Which makes his forays into political matters all the more startling, whether he’s questioning legacies (“it’s a new era/ whose era?/not Reagan’s”) or just subscribing to populism (“If I ever had a job/ I would take a long lunch”). And more often than not, he simply has fun with the English language. Like on “Numbnuts,” where he rhymes “Henry Rollins” with “George Carlin” and “crawfish in New Orleans”.
The Roots, Undun (Def Jam)
Harping on a concept album for being vague is one thing, but harping on one for being too short is perverse – if only David Comes To Life had been similarly winnowed down. Yet 38 minutes (with nearly seven claimed by opening-and-closing instrumental aimlessness) is hardly enough time to expand on any theme, even one as common to hip-hop as the doomed street hustler, which might explain why The Roots have been pointing fans to a free Redford Stevens app to help flesh out their creation. But this album doesn’t need any apps. Rather, what the greatest working crew in hip-hop could use is a few more hooks and stronger beats, with ?uestlove’s two great moments appearing on the two songs he opens. Admittedly, some disappointed critics overstate the lack of obvious singles here, with the gentle “Make My,” the old-school “Kool On,” and the almost Britpop chorus of “Lighthouse” clear contenders for any end-of-year mixtape. Maybe no amount of melody could dispel the gloom surrounding that last number’s subject living “face down in the ocean”. Still, did you expect gangsta boasting? This is a lament for wasted opportunity and senseless violence, with political asides far more nuanced than their Michelle Bachmann brouhaha would suggest, whether dispensing with romantic notions of incarceration (“lotta niggas go to prison/ how many come out Malcolm X?”) or highlighting the disenfranchisement of the lower 99% (“feared in all the streets/so if you ever see me out in y’all streets/ find another one to occupy”). Perhaps that line calls out Occupy Wall Street as an upper middle class fantasy. Or perhaps it simply recognizes that the individuals who might best benefit from wealth redistribution are already going about the matter in their own self-destructive ways. So don’t oversimplify the aims of this flawed offering, even if I’m convinced these guys covered the same ground more succinctly in “How I Got Over’s” memorable hook – “first thing they teach us/ not to give a fuck/ that type of thinking can’t get you nowhere/ someone has to care”.
Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire, Lost In Translation (Mishka free download)
So how come this guy gets away with the kind of offensive, stupid, almost unconscionable nonsense that dooms so many of his underground hip-hop counterparts, what with his odes to drunk driving, his cracking up over “cockmeat sandwich,” his “fag” epithets, his mockery of accents from the Indian Subcontinent, his song called “Build-A-Bitch”? Maybe because the nonsense he transmits is so often just that – nonsensical rather than offensive. True, this is undeniably lewd, from an unfortunately extended blowjob-as-audio-vérité skit to the malt liquor-swigging lady on the cover apparently fingering herself. But he’s more Ol’ Dirty Bastard than D-12, and not just because he’s from Brooklyn. “Huzzah!”, that ode to drunk driving, revels in its own absurdity, weakly boasting mid-song “me and my niggas gonna take the world over” as if even he doesn’t believe it, while that “Build-A-Bitch” track comes off more purposefully pathetic than prickish. As “Chicken Spot Rock” makes clear, he’s got his priorities in order, hoping his food stays warm while turning his nose up at the macaroni salad. And when he offers up the requisite “mama” track, it’s a bit of a stunner, all soft flute and childhood memories, hardly sappy and certainly not crass. Called “I Should Be Sleepin’”, it’s about sneaking around in your p.j.’s and the pleasures of a room filled with toys. Touching and sweet. No, really - touching and sweet.
Carl Thomas, Conquer (Verve Forecast)
This inoffensive r&b crooner preceded his inoffensive album with the defiantly-throwback single “Don’t Kiss Me” earlier this year, a number distinguished primarily by the Chicago-based singer’s disinterest in technology-enhanced gimmickry. If his vocals aren’t quite distinguished enough to engage disinterested parties, his battlefield metaphors on “Conquer” are just old-fashioned enough to make one wonder whether he’d admit bedroom conquests are most fun when the playing field is level. And while it’s probably futile to seek literary rewards in softcore r&b, Thomas has enough good lines in “Round 2,” a rather sweet encomium of adult pillow fighting, (“your body is a private party/ I’m the only one invited”) to make the joyless reliance on clichés in opener “The Night is Yours” particularly maddening. From opacities like “go ahead and stop the hands of time” and “the melody inside of your mind,” to such chestnuts as “it’s not set in stone,” “you don’t have to wish upon a star,” and “sit back and enjoy the ride,” this suave Thomas Friedman acolyte can’t even let it go in the song’s final seconds, tossing aside a “night time/ is the right time” as things slowly fade out.
T-Pain, rEVOLVEr (RCA)
In one sense, this kind of pop product is impervious to criticism, so deliberately shallow that pointing out its stupidity says more about the reviewer than about T-Pain. But it’s also a cultural artifact as carefully codified as a Noh play, and a display of emotional falsity on par with reality television pilot episodes. Really, can somebody explain to me how T-Pain is any different from such novelty artists of the past as David Seville or Sheb Wooley, to name two hucksters who also had a few hooks to go along with their fancy technology? How else to categorize a Nuvo-hawking artiste who took two years to come up with this song cycle after having threatened to sit on the results if his Twitter account failed to top one million fans? An artiste who released and pulled three different “first singles” for this album, demoting each in turn to “promotional single” status after each failed to chart? An artiste who seemingly lives out his existence in anonymous clubs, texting furiously while yanking rubbers out of Gucci bags, all the while barricaded inside the Auto-Tune bunker he’s built his career on? When he reaches for a subject beyond spilled drinks, like on the biracial ballad “Mix’d Girl,” one feels something akin to awe – “but I think I’m in love/ with all of your features/ can I get a hug?/ it was so nice to meet ya”. Thank RCA for snagging Lil’ Wayne and Lily Allen cameos, thereby offering us a glimpse of the human spirit lying just beyond this robotics project. Because when T-Pain compares himself to the Energizer Bunny, you sort of know what he means.