Thanks to my wife and extended family’s humbling benevolence, this column comes at a rare moment when I have nothing to bemoan and no explicable anxiety or troubles (except via the usual body chemistry), so here’s an all-flames batch of jams (including a book and a piece of visual art) that have gotten me positively geeked of late. A playlist of stuff that, for whatever reason, made my not-so-young heart run free. Here’s to everyone having a momentarily stabilized mood!
Neisha Neshae, “On a Cloud” (TandB)
Up from foster homes, having endured her mother’s death, now a coolly charismatic singer/rapper with a rough yearn in her voice, Ypsilanti, Michigan’s “Queen of R&B Trap” sounds like she’s already arrived. (Among those on board: Dej Loaf gave her an early shout of support.) “All that hate shit is a no-no / Too hot for these niggas and I can't fuck with the po-po,” she testifies over Helluva’s dreamy trap thump. More, por favor.
Greg Tate, Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader (Duke University Press)
An author quote on the back cover of this book trumpets that Tate is the “premier hip-hop writer of his generation,” a worthy and true superlative, indeed. The Harlem polymath’s deep-fantasy dives on everyone from Rammellzee to Wu-Tang to Azealia Banks (all included here) are enlightening, for sure, but I’d adjust that praise a bit to argue that Tate is the premier hip-hop writer of any generation, and also the premier cultural critic of the 1980s forward — in fact, some of the strongest, most head-cracking pieces in Flyboy 2 (the follow-up to 1992’s era-defining essay collection Flyboy in the Buttermilk) are not directly about hip-hop at all. Tate’s wranglings with the creative output of Kara Walker, Richard Pryor, Thornton Dial, Bob Dylan, Suzan-Lori Parks, et al., yank you briskly into his bustling, deeply documented agora of whiplash truths and sophisticated, post-academic shit-talk. (Bonus: Afterward, invariably, you feel an exuberant, let’s-play-two responsibility to step up your own sorry game.) What’s more, Tate is also one of the premier poets of the hip-hop generation — respect to Paul Beatty, Jessica Care Moore, Saul Williams, Kush Thompson, Safia Elhillo, MTV News columnist Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, and scads of others — if only for his ruthlessly serious spit-take “What Is Hip-Hop?” wherein delirious dimes are dropped like: “Hip-hop is James Brown’s pelvis digitally grinded into technomorphine” or “Hip-hop is the first musical movement in history where Black people pimped themselves before the white boy did” or “Your mother so hip-hop she yelled ho ’fo I even axed her.” I implore you, cop this tome or pray the Orishas take pity on your impoverished soul.
Pill, “Vagabond” and “Medicine” (Mexican Summer)
A cascading no-wave calamity with a sturdy bass lifeline from a Brooklyn crew rallied by Veronica Torres’s politicized speak-yowl: “Foreign body / Turn me on!” Is that wailing sax-siren chasing you or saving you? Neither; just keep it moving to a less-objectified location.
Maja Djordjevic, “Be Happy – I Love You,” the Hole, New York, NY
The group art show Booby Trap, at New York City gallery The Hole, gathers work that’s “hot and bothered and a little bugged out,” and “takes a flat approach to figuration.” Yes, the phrase “acquired taste” comes to mind, but one large oil painting by Serbian artist Maja Djordjevic stuck to my eye like an inescapable speck of dirt. Titled “Be Happy – I Love You,” it’s a primitive-looking sketch of a naked girl or woman firing a gun in the air while straddling an oversize, upside-down, melting and/or bleeding ice-cream cone, which seems to be floating on an ocean dotted with sprinkles; she’s got tiny blue squares for eyes, two streaks of yellow for hair, and a red smear for a (screaming) mouth. Intentionally drawn to imitate the MS Paint app, it’s one of the most unnerving, ridiculous, i.e. punk rock images I’ve seen in years. If some brattily confrontational or aggressively naïf act doesn’t snap it up for an album cover, I’ll be very disappointed.
Roy Wood$, “Gwan Big Up Urself” (OVO Sound/Warner Bros.)
Unlike his gloomy emo-skank labelmates (Drake, The Weeknd, Partynextdoor, Majid Jordan), 20-year-old Yung Ovo, a.k.a. Guyanese-Canadian singer-rapper Roy Wood$, a.k.a Denzel Spencer, comes on with a genial dancehall-pop slink, cooing oo-oo-oo and oh my oh my oh my. Of course, there are slack sweet nothings mingled in throughout, but Woods’s feathery voice casts him as a courteous, no-worries courtier.
Terry Allen, “Writing on Rocks Across the U.S.A.” (Paradise of Bachelors)
The reclamation of Juarez, Lubbock, Texas, visual artist/musician/sculptor Terry Allen’s 1975 debut, is the year’s most sublimely replete reissue (lithographs! a good Dave Hickey essay!). Basically a bloody corrido, the record’s suggestive narrative always flutters and flails out of reach, with Allen describing his outlaw characters — two star-crossed couples — as “emotional climates” more than real people. But “Writing on Rocks” is an immediate blast, with Allen on solo piano, braying in his charming twang: “Yeah, your life is long, girl / Your life is short / But every man, he gotta leave his mark / So I got my pencil and got my chalk / There ain’t a rock made I can’t make talk / Write on.”
Martha, “Ice Cream and Sunscreen” (Dirtnap)
Only a coed group from a grey British town called Pity Me could concoct a twee-punk summer anthem so gorgeously regretful.
Cam & China, “We Gon Make It” (Self-released)
The hardest, most unfuckwithable voices in rap belong to these Inglewood twins, who used to be in a late-2000s jerkin’ group called Pink Dollaz (they were known as Cammy B and CeeCee back then). Now, Cam & China are skilled aestheticians of the fuck-you-up school, threatening and side-eyeing with aplomb. What’s remarkable about “We Gon Back It,” produced with a more wistful swirl by Serge Monstracity, is that they get reflective for a minute; they acknowledge vulnerability and mortality. But the in-your-face, take-no-shit flurry of their rapping never lets up.
John Gibbons, “Would I Lie to You” (Blindsided)
Gibbons was hyped someplace as an Irish Calvin Harris, but he’s more of a Pete Tong: a longstanding Dublin dance don who’s more of an advocate than an artist (though that blond mane doesn’t hate the camera, as fans of Pretty Little Liars may have noticed in an episode earlier this year). His potential breakthrough is a finger-snappy, deftly diced, storming pop-house version of the 1992 pop-soul hit “Would I Lie to You” by the one-hit-wonder duo of Eddie Chacon and the late Charles Pettigrew. Fun fact: Chacon started his first band with Metallica’s Cliff Burton and Faith No More’s Mike Bordin. Would I lie to you, honey? Never.
Frances Bean Cobain, “The Middle” (acoustic version looped from Instagram)
The 2001 hit’s narcotic repetition only strengthens the firmness of her pathos. Frances Eat World. Everything, everything.
Dinosaur Jr., “Goin’ Down” (Jagjaguwar)
We’re doubly blessed to have the original Dino Jr. lineup still bopping among us, putting to rest the pass-agg squabbling and restoring the best setting for J Mascis, the most life-affirming rock guitarist of the past 30 years (and if you think that’s corny, you try to affirm my life, it’s no picnic!). Here, as elsewhere on Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not, every solo, no matter how harshly squealing or roof-caving, is a big, heartfelt (if slightly awkward) hug that’s always warmer than you expect. And the choruses are an open invitation to join his club forever: “Are you with me? Are you with me when I’m gone?” The video is a Vans ad, but check the first eight seconds where Mascis skateboards to the gig like a shaggy statue on a dolly. For a guy who’s basically monosyllabic and motionless, he never misses a chance to tap an effects pedal and blissfully wreck your head.