Mystic, Cuts for Luck and Scars for Freedom (GoodVibe) From Lauryn Hill to Faith Evans to Foxy Brown, today’s female MCs come in three basic flavors: high-minded mamas, thuggish molls and gold-digging material girls. This ghetto-bred, Bay-area dialectician disproves the rule. By turns hard and soft, in your face and out to take you higher, Mystic comes off as less of a b-girl than a real live woman. Think Mary J. Blige in the combat zone.
“I stand strong with a militant mind / Not no ice bitch, that’s too easy to find,” she rhymes to the pensive bump of “A Dream.” “I don’t wanna be ill, don’t wanna be a woman broken / I rock mics, spread love and just keep hoping.” Indeed, over knotty riddims, spacey bass, and soundscapes that run the gamut from gangsta lean to tripped-out and groovy, Mystic tenders transcendental analysis, redefines righteousness, and lifts up her sisters every chance she gets. But she also plays the trickster, turning the tables on an unsuspecting brother. “Say, ho’, yeah you,” she begins, reeling him in. “Can I ask you a question? / Would you like to fuck? / Oh, you don’t want me to talk to you like that? / Would you like to make love?” Absolutely.
Aesop Rock, Labor Days (Def Jux) More indie rap, this by way of the NYC underground and cut creator El-P’s much hyped Def Jux imprint, a record label that takes its cue from the Last Poets and KRS-One and offers an enlightened alternative to corporate hip-hop. Rhyming against ambient, soundtrack-like backdrops and minimal beats, this stentorian motor-mouth flashes wicked wit (“Who am I / Jabberwocky Superfly?”) and a porous heart (“Where I live there’s a homeless man, he sits upon a crate / Makes a rusty trumpet sound like the music that angels make”). He sets forth some hardboiled empiricism too (“Don’t tell me Lucifer and God don’t carpool”). He also raps what he knows: the working-man blues, punching the clock being the leitmotif of this loose concept album, which is ecumenical enough to quote Dolly’s “9 to 5.” Our young MC’s biggest fear: deferring his dreams, as millions do every year, for a steady paycheck.
Shelby Lynne, Love, Shelby (Island) Last year’s Grammy-winning I Am Shelby Lynne found this Nashville expat asserting herself and baring it all. This come-on, though, is mostly about peddling her assliterally, as the CD’s soft-core cover photos reveal. “Bend just a little, break just a little,” she exhorts to the shuffling neo-soul of “Bends.” If that doesn’t sound like a formula for success, I don’t know what does. Yet as venal as it all may seem, it hardly makes for a bad recordjust a middling-good disappointment, one that trades her previous record’s shades of Dusty and Sheryl (Crow) for producer Glen Ballard’s mix of arena-rock and latter-day electronics. Ballard imbues the proceedingswhich include everything from anthemic rock (“I Can’t Wait”) to blustery R&B (“Ain’t It the Truth”) to frothy pop (“Killin’ Kind”)with a fetching enough AOR sheen. The problem is, there’s rarely enough room in his crowded house for Lynne’s humid drawl to breathe. And the songs, all of them written or cowritten by the singer except John Lennon’s signifying “Mother,” are just a cut above average. The irony, in the end, is that a whole lotta Love, Shelby lies only a little to the left of the AC-infected “hot new country” she abandoned when she skipped town six years ago.
Nikka Costa, Everybody Got Their Something (Cheeba Sound/Virgin) Her old man was producer Don Costa (Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr.), and her godfather was Frank Sinatra, but Nikka is a funk-rocker, a musical child of the likes of Sly, Janis, Chaka and Prince. Witness the wiry grind and “Dirty Mind” falsetto of “Like a Feather,” or the stuttering pulse of the title track, which is lifted wholesale from Sly and the Family Stone’s “If You Want Me to Stay.” Costa can get heavy tooas in the wailing, Seattle-style Zeppelinisms of “So Have I for You” and “Tug of War,” or the defiantly funkadelic “Hope It Felt Good,” all three of which boast ?uestlove of The Roots on drums. “Tug of War” even sports a couple passages of orchestral dissonance verging on musique concrète. Costa, who plays the Exit/In on Dec. 14, is at her best when she lets the storm rage rather than plays it quiet, à la the soporific “Corners of My Mind.” Sure, she shares some of Lenny Kravitz’s retrogressive tendencies, but there’s no denying she’s got her something too.
Drive-By Truckers, Southern Rock Opera (Soul Dump Records) The thread that ties this slantwise Skynyrd tribute together is something singer Patterson Hood calls “the duality of the Southern thing.” Hood is talking about the tangle of glory and shame that comes of growing up white in the land of cotton. Epitomizing that tension on this double CD are Ronnie Van Zandt and former Alabama governor George Wallace. It’s a brilliant conceit, one with roots as thorny and deep as the South itself. And with the Truckers availing themselves of Skynyrd’s triple guitar attack, it might have been a masterstroke, a beacon lighting the way to greater understanding.
But for all the doors Hood and company open, there’s an acrid cry of “Stay out the way of the Southern thing” to slam them shut. Or a rationalization, despite Hood’s claims to the contrary, of the ignominy inherent in the Southernindeed, the Americanthing. Nowhere is this agenda more obvious or self-serving than when, belaboring the point about Wallace’s efforts to atone for his sins, Hood insists the “misunderstood” governor went to hell not for being a racist, but for being a political opportunist. This rap isn’t without a kernel of truth, but it also smacks of explaining away the larger Southern predicament that lies at the heart of the record. It certainly undercuts the tension the Truckers maintain elsewhere, and with empathy and winning irony at that. In fact, it mucks things up about as much as the album’s muddy sonics, which couldn’t be further from the taut, clean sound of their heroes’ records.
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