Semipop Life: Tour de l'Afropessimisme
Billy Woods, Miranda Lambert, Tommy Womack, Kendrick Lamar, and more!
Despite his bandmate Elucid’s talent, Woods’s solo albums have a higher ceiling than Armand Hammer’s because his ideas can take their natural forms and lengths. Sometimes that’s conventional verse-chorus, whereas on “No Hard Feelings”, he constructs a monstrous first verse that descends from an exploding space shuttle to the furnace in the basement of an unevenly heated apartment building, appends a perfunctory coda, and calls it a song. Producer Preservation creates, in quite a different way from Kenny Segal on Hiding Places, a very New York soundscape out of samples decontextualized beyond recognition, simulating the experience of emerging from a random Bronx subway station and having no idea what combination of languages the surrounding chatter is in—what I was sure was an Ethiopian Moog sample on “Remorseless” turns out to be Polish. It’s an intriguing contrast to Woods’s very Black-centric words, by default delivered in a matter-of-fact flow that lets his occasional emotive moments stand out more, that display enough knowledge of failed juntas and Wole Soyinka adaptations to make Tumblr explicators run up frightening word counts. Woods creates this pan-African, pan-diasporic description of reality as a strategy to distract from his near-future pessimism by constantly looking back, to the point of namechecking “Those Were the Days”, which, he will tell you, played over the PA during a 1969 mass execution in Equatorial Guinea’s national stadium. His guests provide sonic variety, yet fellow conceptualist Mike Ladd aside, they prove difficult to integrate into his vision: they distract from the best rapper alive.
Grade: A (“No Hard Feelings”, “Christine”, “Sauvage”)
Miranda Lambert: Palomino
Working out whether she’s wrested back the title of finest American singer-songwriter of the era would require more math than I want to do, so let’s just remind you she’s up there. A consummate pro, she gives you fast ones and slow ones, the B-52s and rampant heterosexuality, Geraldene-not-Jolene and Carol Jean the Chicken Egg Queen. Three of the best songs on The Marfa Tapes are fuller and more meaningful here, as one would expect when she has a crack band led by former CUNY prof Luke Dick (editor of The Rolling Stones and Philosophy) and the best session players in the South (Al Perkins!) on call. Their apparent ease contributes to this feeling like her least ambitious album, but the last time she was ambitious I pretended it wasn’t a double, so I won’t protest. In contrast, almost every song here holds attention for its designated three or four minutes, and even the unnecessary Jagger cover would make for an interesting chapter of Miranda Lambert and Philosophy if “Tourist” didn’t supersede it. While these days she might not be hitting the dive bars after her shows, she doesn’t have to. She’s been there, and she still gets around.
Grade: A (“Waxahatchie”, “Tourist”, “Geraldene”)
Tommy Womack: I Thought I Was Fine
He of “Alpha Male & the Canine Mystery Blood” told his crowdfunders “I am very proud of this record and strongly believe it is the best album of my career” as well as “I’m not going to say it stinks, am I?” You know what, I’ll take him at his word. Ditching all country pretenses, he and drummer Jonathan Bright turned the moolah of their 245 Indiegogo backers into a trad rock record as strong as anyone not from Cincinnati has made in years. Very aware of his vocal limits as well as his mortality (the album title alludes to his count-’em three bouts with cancer), Womack delegates most of the melody to guitar and writes to ensure the not-many notes of his range encompass a celebration of lives lived with love, often monogamous, though in his brother Waymond’s case it took a few attempts and an Elvis rejection. Tonal exception: the short, spoken “Call Me Gary”—the words first a priest’s instructions to the boy he treats to a vanilla cone, then St. Peter’s, should he exist, to the priest—is chilling. It's followed by “That Lucky Old Sun”.
Grade: A MINUS (“Call Me Gary”, “Pay It Forward”, “I Wish I’d Known You Better”)
Black & Loud: James Brown as Reimagined by Stro Elliot
More than SortaGood. Ableton adept Elliot, a Roots member since 2017 (i.e. after Questlove gave up on finishing albums in favor of becoming King of All Media), has made one of the rare re-imaginings of great work that doesn’t just make me want to play the originals, with the dynamite of Brown’s vocal exhortations given special strength. Granted access to only the Godfather’s most obvious hits, Elliot reconstitutes Jabo and Clyde as well as tappity-tapping out his own loops a la main precedent J Dilla. I like the circularity of taking funk innovations that descend directly from Brownian motion and applying them to the Grand Old Bag: Fela would be black and proud of the Afrobeated “Sex Machine”, and would then demand ten percent. If UniMoth lets Elliot have a crack at a JBV2, some more variation in tempo wouldn’t go amiss. Or else: don’t they own the Parliament catalog now?
Grade: A MINUS (“Coal Sweat”, “Machine No Make Sex”, “She Made Me Popcorn”)
Lucky Daye: Candydrip
After a couple of years of cameoing on everyone’s records, from Spillage Village to Earth, Wind & Fire, Daye-rhymes-with-Gaye’s credible bid to become the era’s loverman of choice didn’t chart higher than number 69, which is admittedly nice. He and producer D’Mile learned structure and timbre from Miguel, with the occasional surprising, natural mid-song shift, yet for all the right-now wubble-bass and aquarium effects, the feel is of a throwback to what we thought was an era of gentlemen because we didn’t have Wikipedia articles with “Personal life” sections then. Daye’s falsetto holds up well through extended use, while there’s not much of his sorta-rapping. His amorousness is as well-lubricated as he is on the cover, but clouds can be spotted—“we tried to end it twice”, closes the title track. Make-up sex: you can never have it just once.
Grade: A MINUS (“Fever”, “Candy Drip”, “Feels Like”)
Blind Zimbabwean street musician Daniel Gonora and his percussion prodigy son Isaac, who’ve already had a documentary made about them (2016’s You Can’t Hide from the Truth), get American money and a non-broken drum kit to make a sleek, inviting album. The first three tracks are just one or two of them playing with roadside immediacy. The elder Gonora has an attention-grabbing electric guitar tone and supplies vocal acclamations (supporting the Zimbabwean national football team) to match. The rest of the album features a full band playing sungura, a local adaptation of Tanzania’s adaptation of Congo’s adaptation of Cuba’s adaptation of Spanish guitar. Hot licks abound, and if on the whole it indulges in more nostalgia than that distinctive opening salvo, the Gonoras have a better excuse for peddling it than most.
Grade: B PLUS (“Go Bhora”, “Mukona Shadrek”, “Muchange Muripiko”)
Outlasting her generation of K-pop girls, she’s sustained a successful solo career through to the ripe old age of thirty-three by becoming the biz’s go-to when they have a must-sell story or product: SM Entertainment bestowed leadership of their supergroup GOT the Beat on her, for example. Her key skill, besides being by all appearances a high-functioning adult, is that she’s one of the genre’s few genuine interpretative singers, capable of expressing non-positive feelings in high-functioning adult ways. Her third solo full-length might have a few too many ballads for your taste and maybe mine, but she imbues each of them with emotion so composed that the title “Can’t Control Myself” becomes ironic. One doesn’t believe she intends the self-immolation proposed on “Set Myself on Fire”; she’s just watched a lot of the Korean dramas she’s perennially on the soundtracks of. That’s due diligence.
Grade: B PLUS (“INVU”, “Siren”, “No Love Again”)
The latter first: J. Lee’s a punk turned remixer turned Steve Lillywhite apprentice so studious he got to produce the last U2 album. He keeps that last hat on throughout this album, so you get plentiful atmospherics—every keyboarded chord is a day in the life—but there are also beats, often. La Rose de Bamako Koné gets through her melismas with efficiency, her controlled crescendos giving the impression of bottled energy. Lyrics in translation are unimpeachably feminist: toxic men are metamorphosed into bugs, the perfection of African women is celebrated except for one mother showered with trash who had it coming, it seems. A strong effort, and all I ask for is ten times as much ngoni next time. Teach The Edge if you have to.
Grade: B PLUS (“Kurunba”, “Mansa Soyari”, “Mayougouba”)
Kendrick Lamar: Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers
I don’t know if I’ve ever been annoyed by a major non-British artist so many times on one album (oh right, Dylan.) In part, that’s the point: the lyrics are as consciously designed to irritate the educated bourgeois audience as Never Mind the Bollocks was. The thing is, for all of that audience’s arbitrary-to-flawed aesthetic preferences, many of their prescriptive guidelines for the social use of language—not spamming the b-word, for instance—are reasonable. More generally, Kendrick’s repetitions, which on Damn you could maybe give the benefit of the doubt, aren’t fun enough to make up for their laziness: “can’t please everybody” is a truth, not an excuse. Meanwhile his aesthetics are marred by bourgeois pretension and plain old bad ideas, like the Muppets-do-Marriage Story centerpiece that beats out his 2Pac interview for his most effective self-sabotage of an album, though the pattern of underlining the moments of good classical rapping with I’m-being-serious-now piano/strings/Portishead does as much cumulative damage. This tendency culminates in “Auntie Diaries”, which in adding the album’s most considered and heartfelt verses makes his gameplan apparent: it’s the refusal of educated language norms in itself that allows him to reach an audience that would otherwise hit skip seconds into a pro-trans apologia. On utilitarian terms, album of the year.
Grade: B (“Purple Hearts”, “Father Time”, “Auntie Diaries”)