Killer Mike, R.A.P. Music (Williams Street)
Plenty of good critics are overselling this admirable album for sure, bandying about such praise as career “culmination” and “must-hear,” which suggests a burning desire among the cognoscenti to further the cause of melding ATL with Definitive Jux. But even if El-P’s not your producer of choice, his synth-heavy yet hardly fussy tracks match the nimble fury of the rhymes. Hooks eventually (slowly, one might gripe) surface after repeated playings, except for the ones that knock you out on first listen, like the weary refrain of “Ghetto Gospel” or the old school glory of “JoJo’s Chillin’”. But all the ink splashed over El-P does the main attraction a major disservice, as it’s the maestro’s Rebellious African People Music, not the mix, conceptually tying the album together. That claim for the African diaspora isn’t made lightly, with Mike explicitly linking W.E.B. Du Bois with Donald Goines early on, praising the legacy of Coretta Scott King while insisting James Earl Ray was a terrorist, and summing up the continuing aftereffects of the slave trade with the right-on claim “free labor is the cornerstone of U.S. economics”. As these excerpts suggest, he’s as pissed off as any circa-1990 gangsta MC, but with targets far more nuanced and honed. The anti-cop number turns on a proud embrace of his policeman father (“you don’t think I know a dirty-ass cop when I see one?”), while the truth-telling anti-Reagan number suggests he’ll lead the fight to keep our 40th President off the $50 bill. Bring the noise.
Carole King, The Legendary Demos (Universal)
This portrait of a working songwriter isn’t just a nostalgic glimpse at the transitionary period linking Brill Building scribes-for-hire with the singer-songwriter movement, it’s also a well-paced standalone album. King always towered over her contemporaries, brandishing the double-threat of peerless melodic gifts and an unadorned voice effortlessly exuding soul - just ask yourself if you’d spring for a collection of Boyce / Hart or Mann / Weil rough demos. Plenty of the songs included in this succinct collection of pop gems are simple piano-and-voice performances, although just as many claim full arrangements, from a Monkees-earmarked “Pleasant Valley Sunday” riding a Belle and Sebastian-reminiscent folk-rock beat to a positively shimmering “Yours Until Tomorrow”. If the Tapestry numbers rarely add to our collective understanding of that seminal document, they do help complete a cycle of maturity even as they remain very much of a piece with her earlier achievements. Whether she’s a teenager eerily echoing the vocal tics of her famous clients (most musically literate fans could isolate the Everly Brothers number from the Righteous Brothers number even without prior knowledge) or a woman codifying an entire blueprint for one type of adult expression, she’s rarely anything less than compelling even when she’s only singing for herself. The songs, the songs, the songs. But also the voice, the voice, the voice.
Usher, Looking 4 Myself (RCA)
Exactly as revolutionary with regards to r&b as the artiste claimed his mohawk was to international fashion, which is to say not at all, this bundle of sonically intriguing sex jams is nonetheless a rather brave move for a superstar who could choose to mine familiar ground for the next several decades with little drop in his core audience if it so pleased him. As a professional summation of various ongoing trends in his chosen medium, then, it’s loads of fun, with Diplo, Rick Ross, Shellback, and Swedish House Mafia jostling for space alongside a Billy Joel quote refashioned as a wall of synthesizers, even as Usher the Traditionalist basks in the defiant throwback that is “Twisted” or a title tune suggesting Prince at his most jerkily new wave. Thankfully, he never gets in over his head - all those production tricks pay fealty to his overriding concern, which is gently easing the pants off of a love interest. “Scream” is what he wants to make said love interest do. Same with “Climax”.
Black Music Disaster (Thirsty Ear)
Don’t think of this as jazz, even if Matthew Shipp’s presence suggests otherwise. It’s more like garage rock, with the limited tonal possibilities of the Farfisa organ running roughshod over the limited improvisational abilities of a backing band that includes the guy from Spiritualized and a guy from Spring Heel Jack. Even with two guitarists, this 38-minute slab of noise remains the keyboardist’s gig - just like on “Sister Ray,” the organ’s volume knob gets twisted up and over everything else. But they sure do raise a holy racket, and eventually start to swing (roughly 23 minutes in) and rock (roughly 34 minutes in).
2:54, 2:54 (Fat Possum)
Just what we needed, another band named after a Melvins song. Except they’re not really named after a Melvins song, just after their favorite moment from a Melvins song (“A History Of Bad Men,” in case you’re stumped). Of only some of that storied outfit’s slop and noise had bled into the Cure Lite on fine display here. Without a lyric sheet on hand, there’s no way to discern whether the Thurlow sisters are repetitively gasping “e / vil” or “heave / ho” during opener “Revolving”. But neither one seems out of the question.
Joe Walsh, Analog Man (Concord / Fantasy)
One shouldn’t expect Leonard Cohen-style grace on the topic of outgrowing one’s world from the goofiest Eagle, but this is far dumber than you’d think. The preening title track ruminates on the digital divide, which like any rock star Walsh assumes applies exclusively to his record collection (“what’s wrong with vinyl / I think it sounds great”) and future sexual conquests (digital world rhymed with “I’m gonna get me an analog girl”). Elsewhere, he gets hot and bothered about one hundred channels but nothing on ‘em, reflects how blessed he is to have a swimming pool (a Hot Country-flirting “Lucky That Way”), and drools over a “Spanish Dancer” while exploring the upper limits of his range and dodging castanets. He means no harm, obviously. But what’s with all those synthesizers on barf-fest “Family,” Analog Man? Or the programmed drums on a two-minute remake of “Funk #49” entitled “Funk #50”?