Robert Christgau:
Expert Witness

Azealia Banks / Iggy Azalea / Wu-Tang Clan / Nicki Minaj / Lecrae / Buck 65 / Tricky / Big Sean / T.I. / Freddie Gibbs and Madlib /Run the Jewels / Earl Sweatshirt / Ghostface Killah


Azealia Banks:
Broke With Expensive Taste

(Prospect Park)

The articulation of our most musical young rapper is crystalline without flaunting its precision. Her singing rolls full and easy from somewhere in her torso. The grain of her voice is both pretty and sensual. And unlike her male counterparts she doesn’t equate sex with power—there’s verbal as well as vocal evidence that she feels it elsewhere than her genitalia. That said, she does seem to equate rapping with power—her troubles are the usual star-time overindulgences, and just about every terrific song here is a boast one way or another. Yet just about every song is a serious pleasure regardless. Here’s hoping that when she achieves the security she deserves, she uses her IQ for something more useful than battling a melanin-deprived rival who admits more vulnerabilities than she does. A

Iggy Azalea: The New Classic

(Def Jam)

The hooks pop-rap lives off abound, and the cameos are essential because that’s what they’re here for, adding a measure of soul or power or fetching melody Iggy herself doesn’t have in her. That’s demonstrably true right now—line the seven bonus tracks that fill out the useless Reclassified repackage all in a row and you still won’t have a decent EP—and might be true forever. Doesn’t matter, because as a pop album this tops Ariana’s, Sia’s, dare I say it Taylor’s, even Nicki’s. What’s more, it’s Iggy herself whose striving Australian-Atlantan cadence puts every song across. Hooks you can hire easy these days. Originality you can’t. And as Elvis Presley told Marion Keisker sixty years ago, she don’t sound like nobody. A MINUS

Wu-Tang Clan: A Better Tomorrow

(Warner Bros.)

Less a tour de force than a show of force, this is the music that can happen when a master producer gets to deploy nine skilled veteran voices — although the departed ODB is sampled, and effectively too, it’s Cappadonna who fills out the cipher. If you’re counting, rough-smooth-soulful Method Man and rat-a-tat-tat Masta Killa step up twice as often as Ghostface and Raekwon. But everybody’s in the house, everybody raps better than he rhymes, nobody rhymes badly, and RZA is the man. Verbally, in the year a white Staten Island cop martyred a black Staten Island loosies vendor and a white Staten Island cop-turned-felon represented Staten Island in Congress, the album’s vision of African-American life is longer on community than getting yours, but it’s hardly unmaterialistic — mature, not respectable, as why the fuck should it be? Musically, it’s almost utopian. A MINUS

Nicki Minaj:
The Pinkprint (Deluxe Edition)

(Cash Money/Republic)

Sometimes gossip can be so enlightening. The reflective opener “All Things Go” is pretty solid on its own. But word that this particular best rapper alive just ended a 12-year relationship with her homeboy boyfriend renders the two ballads that work off that prologue touching. The bad part is that it doesn’t render them major ballads, although she gets somewhat closer on “Bed of Lies” at the other end of the narrative arc before overblowing the supposedly climactic “Grand Piano.” Only then come three album-defining bonus tracks. The Meek Mill-assisted “Big Daddy” is so generic it establishes how ungeneric the Drake/Weezy-assisted “Only” and the Lunchmoney Lewis-assisted “Trini Dem Gals” were — makes you want to play them again, in fact. And on “Shanghai” and “Win Again,” Minaj returns to her triumphalist mode prepared to embrace the role of a 32-year-old woman ready for love — even, in both songs, the motherhood she reflects on as the record begins. A MINUS

Lecrae: Anomaly (Reach) He can rap, he can rhyme, and Christian ethics are a lot better than than no ethics at all—especially when they don’t moralize from above (“Welcome to America,” “Dirty Water”) ***

Buck 65: Neverlove (Warner Music Canada) The yoked disconnect of the rapper’s hyperarticulate monotone and his female helpmeets’ sweet hooks mirror the broken marriage he obsesses on (“Super Pretty Naughty,” “Je T’Aime Mon Amour”) ***

Tricky: Adrian Thaws (False Idols) Leaning harder on his ladies’ auxiliary than Leonard Cohen, he continues to mutter that it’s a bummer out there, and half the time prove it (“Lonnie Listen,” “Nicotine Love”) ***

Big Sean: Hall of Fame (Def Jam) Bildungsrapper gets his freak and conscience on (“10 2 10,” “MILF,” “World Ablaze) **

T.I.: Paperwork (Grand Hustle/Columbia) Docked a notch for disrespecting pubic hair (“No Mediocre,” “New National Anthem,” “About the Money”) *

Freddie Gibbs and Madlib: Pinata (Madlib Invazion) Fabulous beats, absolutely, only . . . sorry, I know this is esoteric, but . . . Freddie Gibbs is to Rick Ross as Ryan Bingham is to Luke Bryan—“realer,” but not therefore worthier (“High,” “Broken”) *

Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels 2 (Mass Appeal) Peace to Killer Mike, Bing his Ferguson speech please, but I’ve been around too long to let a corticosteroid abuser like El-P get in my face about right and wrong (“Crown,” “Angel Dusters”) *

Earl Sweatshirt: Doris (Columbia) Earl’s return of the depressed is so much more soulful than Tyler’s revenge of the nerds (“Sunday,” “Sasquatch”) *

Ghostface Killah: 36 Seasons (Salvation/Tommy Boy) Complete with live band and comic-book trot, but lacking a single irresistible track, 40-minute concept album mythologizes D. Coles’s evolution from drug-dealing capo to drug-fighting romantic hero (“Emergency Procedure,” “Blood in the Streets”) *



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Follow Robert Christgau on Twitter at @rxgau.
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