Notes and Letters: December 2016

Rae Sremmurd: Sremmlife 2

I still don’t really know what the #MannequinChallenge is, but I’m glad it helped rap’s best duo of users-not-dealers since Das Racist (sorry Dapwell) to make number one fun again. The worst you can say about them is they use the b-word too much and still play “Up Like Trump” occasionally, excusable in artists younger than the Sega Genesis games Mike Will rips off chords from. That their minds are open to appreciating yoga girls bodes well; they can always rely on guests for criminal records. What matters is they’re the most exciting vocalists in America right now: Slim’s delivery of the descending chorus lines of “Start a Party” make Young Thug seem reserved. Swae’s hook on “By Chance” is, in its own way, just as accomplished: calm signifying calm like he’s bought weed a thousand times before. The ultra-creepy sustained falsetto on “Swang” convinces us they could have been doctors — they could have done anything, and still might. Slim/Swae 2032: Get you somebody that can do both.

Grade: A (“Swang”, “Black Beatles”, “Look Alive”)

Danny Brown: Atrocity Exhibition

The opening diptych sets up a Class Clown Brown vs. Serious Danny dichotomy, then Serious Danny goes AWOL. Only Clown Brown spits like a Shakespearean fool — perceptive without being wise, and I did mention kind of sexist? — so when Kendrick shows up for his six figures his boasts establish mere financial superiority. Brown and longtime collaborator Paul White all but abandon hip hop beats (a blatant lift from “B.O.B” notwithstanding), instead foregrounding samples from krautrock and early electronica. The Alchemist adds prog keybs to loud breakbeats on “White Lines,” while Evian Christ contributes a cymbal-crashing atmosphere as uneasy as any of Joy Division’s to “Pneumonia.” Thematically, Brown evokes both the messianism and the self-destructiveness aroused in the American psyche in times of chaos, which for black Americans is every time: like George Clinton and Ice Cube, he’ll dance in the water and not get wet — he thinks. If not, earthly escape is always available. As avant about drugs as Lou Reed, and as double-edged.

Grade: A (“When It Rain”, “Ain’t It Funny”, “Pneumonia”)

Noura Mint Seymali: Arbina

The first half of this sequel to 2014’s outstanding Tzenni downplays depth of bottom-end groove in favor of consistent forward momentum while her four-piece explores traditions and covers one of her father’s songs that isn’t the Mauritanian national anthem. The beneficiary is Jeiche Ould Chighali, now fully committed to microtonalized electric guitar, who oddly resembles Richard Thompson at his most hard-folkin’ (fortunately for their marriage, Seymali’s not Linda.) Then starting with “Ghlana,” the bottom end ramps up and we move to familiar desert rock territory as the couple complement each other and themselves, Seymali double-tracked for omnipresence, Chighali scratching and tremolo picking. On the closing “Tia,” bassist Ousmane Toure finally goes all out while Seymali gives her most emotive performance requesting a benison for an ailing friend. Pious and forward-looking.

Grade: A MINUS (“Tia”, “Ghlana”, “Soub Hanak”)

Odwalla88: Earth Flirt/Lilly 23

These two EPs by Chloe and Flannery from Baltimore (they moved to LA for the galleries) sum to a half hour that justifies the continued existence of art schools. Words are incantations, as are nonwords: “Crow Jam” is twenty-six seconds of saying “hey” to cawing crows, and it’s awesome. Silences can mean just as much when they’re deployed in sub-minute songs. Of the two releases, the newer Lilly 23 puts more emphasis on the “music” in experimentalmentalmentalmusiclove: Autotuned Taylor Swift is a sunbeam, but rustier hooks abound. Noise and performance cohere into an uncanny-valley approximation of ABA songform, DIY for the sake of DIY: why else wire-wrap a stone? Inspirational instruction: “Make your own.”

Grade: A MINUS (“22”, “Crow Jam”, “What the”)

Sleigh Bells: Jessica Rabbit

Who cares if former cartoon sound effect Alexis Krauss is, heavens, acting? What matters is she’s mixed high and clear, so that the sexual aggression you used to have to strain to hear is now overt, with a predictable effect on their reviews in the indie press. As on Treats, Derek Miller has a bevy of loud and cool sonics for every track — it’s remarkable how little you miss his guitar when instead he and top tier synth ringer Mike Elizondo construct garbage sculptures Krauss roundhouse-kicks for no better reason than that roundhouse kicks are fun. She’s on the right track, baby, she was drawn this way.

Grade: A MINUS (“I Can’t Stand You Anymore”, “Rule Number One”, “Crucible”)

Youssou Ndour & Le Super Etoile: #Senegaal Rekk EP

Africa Rekk turned out a bit too Anglo-soupy; I prefer this five track stopgap’s specificity. The threat of balladry on “Doylu Xaalis” is a fake out before synth stabs and accelerating percussion kick in and our greatest living singer shows his high end is undiminished by age or abortive presidential runs. We don’t fall for the same trick again on “Song Daan,” where Akon (Akon!) can’t quite hang, but props for trying. The actual slow one is quite fetching for its minute and a half. Best of all is “Begg Naa Leen” a/k/a “Senegal Rekk,” as proud a minor key celebration as he’s essayed in a long career.

Grade: A MINUS (“Begg Naa Leen”, “Doylu Xaalis”, “Buur yi Demb”)

Tom Zé: Canções Eróticas de Ninar

A minor 35 minutes, but he’s not about to start making bad albums at 80. Starts with his catchiest song ever, which delves into the etymology of “sexo” over a witty bass line that’s echoed later in “Dedo,” about fingering. The car horn crescendos on “Cadê, Mané?” are more traditional Zé puckishness. There’s one erotic lullaby that Google translates as “outsourcing orgasm,” the sort of thing you might have to do in your eighties. His ideas of sexuality as liberation might seem passé to Third Wavers, but that doesn’t mean sexhavers of all ages can’t take his cue and deconstruct without nihilism.

Grade: A MINUS (“Sexo”, “Cadê, Mané?”, “Dedo”)

Urgent Jumping! East African Musiki Wa Dansi Classics

This Sterns double fulfills the Afrocomp responsibility to flow by sticking to a decade, while allowing for genre to fluctuate beyond strict muziki wa dansi. Congolese emigres do much of the strongest work: future cooperative farmers Maquis du Zaire offer O.K. Jazz-like prominent horn lines; Moreno croons sandily over Francophonic guitar. The locals jump with varying urgency, from straight-up benga to Afrofunk organ rumble made concise for the tastes of Dar es Salaam and Nairobi. In today’s East Africa, distinctions aren’t cost-effective: like the Beatles and Stones, they’re all oldies now, and they don’t stop.

Grade: A MINUS (Maquis du Zaire, “Denise”; L’Orchestre Super Mambo, “Kurkia Ukuta”; Moreno & L’Orch First Moja-One, “Dunia Ni Duara”)

Gary Lucas’ Fleischerei featuring Sarah Stiles: Music from Max Fleischer Cartoons

Too much fun. Trombonist Joe Fiedler is especially effective at eliciting fifty shades muted and un-, but all the band make colorful additions that reveal rather than distract from the soundness of Sammy Timberg’s chords and structures. Stiles plays Betty Boop at the beginning and Olive Oyl at the end, conflating the two in between. At this remove from the 1930s, negotiating the gimmicks might be her most impressive achievement — she spins a broken record like a good vinylphile. In comparison, capturing the Great Depression party vibe used to be so easy I had no need for this until a month ago.

Grade: A MINUS (“Don’t Take My Boop-Oop-a-Doop Away”, “I Want a Clean Shaven Man”, “Brotherly Love”)

Dawn Richard: Redemption

The weakest entry in perhaps the strongest arthouse album trilogy since Bowie war ein Berliner. With Machinedrum’s beats evoking futurism, she finally makes good on earlier glances toward the avant-garde, producing a Vertovian view of contemporary black urbanity from Los Angeles to the Louvre. The kino-eye can be too totalizing: renaming hate crimes “love crimes” is Zizekian doublespeak Peter Gabriel would never condone. But she’s constructed alt-R&B’s most fulfilled bid to supplant ultra-nostalgia, fleshing out what an anti-Fascist cosmopolitan future could sound and feel like. Timely.

Grade: A MINUS (“LA”, “Renegades”, “The Louvre”)

Dedicated to Ali Belz.