Since the bestselling album in America happens to be the soundtrack to a blockbuster about a mythical African realm, I’m hoping to trick you into listening to a band from Niger this week too. Hey, can’t blame a guy for trying.
Black Panther: The Album
Kendrick Lamar is so invested in his status as rap royalty royalty royalty he’d’ve tossed Ryan Coogler off a waterfall to reign over this soundtrack. But though “Black Panther,” which begins “king of my city, king of my country, king of my homeland” (before cramming 21 more “king of”s into the next dozen lines) is putatively from T’Challa’s perspective, and its equal and opposite parallel “King’s Dead” (“Who am I? Not your father, not your brother,” followed by 15 more “not your”s in the next seven lines) claims to channel Killmonger, don’t take K.Dot at his word. Rather than an opportunity to meditate on the themes of power and vengeance Coogler’s blockbuster introduces, this project is just a new prism through which Kendrick can refract the internal conflict he’s placed at the center of his art, which blurs the line between a celebrity’s gripes and an artist’s responsibilities to his culture.
And while Kendrick’s muscular virtuosity is as impressive and charismatic as ever, the thrilling jostle of competing voices and beats here almost upstages him. Rather than straining impossibly to stitch a seamless groove from the two dozen producers at work on these 14 tracks, Kendrick and Sounwave accentuate the discord, so beats shift jarringly mid-track, with nods to an imagined motherland all but subliminal: an Afrobeat bump, an electro-mbira, a stray hand drum from Ludwig Göransson’s score. In this context, the decent soundtracky stuff—Khalid sweetly patronizing his “power girl,” the Weeknd radiating cinematic anomie, even Kendrick and SZA’s “All the Stars”—comes off as baldly slick and functional background music, while weird asides like Future’s croak of “slob on me knob” somehow leap to the fore. And a star turn from spacey South African MC Yugen Blakrok makes me wish Compton’s king paid as much heed to strong female voices as Wakanda’s.GO
With a drummer whose snare hits lurch after darting guitar lines like an over-caffeinated whack-a-mole champ, sometimes accenting their rhythms, sometimes beating them to the punch, always pushing them forward rather than pulsing underneath, this Niger outfit is as frenzied as West African rock gets, its clambering urgency undiminished on its third international release. The dusty, elegant leisure of Mali, the clubby, humid cosmopolitanism of Nigeria—Tal National has no time for either, though vocal and instrumental melodies sometimes suggest a family resemblance. Each of these eight songs features a different singer, and the guitars—always tuneful, sometimes interlocking with the complexity of prog-rock if not jazz-rock, never slacking—consistently steal the spotlight. GO
2 Chainz—The Play Don’t Care Who Makes It
Four songs, none of ‘em classics, all of ‘em keepers. We can talk technique—the way “OK Bitch” builds from tough lyrical spurts to a smooth display of breath control worthy of a three-lunged man, or how he doesn’t so much flow on the chorus to “Land of the Freaks” as rumble underneath like a tuba ensemble or an SUV rolling past. But what 2 Chainz really has to offer is himself, a welcoming bear hug of a vocal presence, with an implied, self-satisfied chuckle that underlines the modesty of boasts like “Known to buy a new car if I got a flat” a “2 Chainz/ I have always worn more than one.” Last year’s full-length Pretty Girls Like Trap Music was a blast for sure, but the EP really is his medium—he gets to go hard and go home. GO
Cadence Weapon—Cadence Weapon
On his first album in six years, Edmonton MC and former Pitchfork critic Rollie Pemberton, a veteran of the days U.S. listeners still treated Canadian rappers like novelties, still traffics in squelchy beats that suggest dance music overheard from the next room and rhymes that are stronger on flow than content. But the flourishes here are brilliant—the titular parenthetical of “My Crew (Woooo)” is creepy rather than celebratory, and on the social climbing “High Rise,” urbane ’90s drum & bass becomes the sound of gentrification. And gradually a theme emerges: how the stresses of everyday life follow you into the club where you’d hoped to escape them. “The Host” follows a DJ on his grind, the partiers of “System” can’t shake racism and sexism on the dancefloor, and the grand finale, “The Afterparty,” fades out with the MC wearily pleading that he’s on the guest list, really he is. “Might be under my artist name/ Can you check another page?” SLOW
Michael Milosh doesn’t really sing like Sade Adu. He sings like a Sade fan, with all a fan-turned-artist’s tendency to reduce the complexity of his idol’s sound to mild parody. (Think of all those faithful Springsteen imitators groaning like they’re trying to shit a pink Cadillac.) Unable to credibly simulate desire or pain, he merely studies his reflection in the sleek, mirrored surface of his productions. “Ethereal,” they teach us to call this kind of disembodied fluff in Rock Critic School, though I prefer the fainter praise of “pretty” or the more direct if less descriptive “boring.” I’d also prefer to just wait for the next Maxwell album.
Go Slow No is a weekly survey of new and overlooked album releases. The rating system is pretty simple: means listen to this now, SLOW means check it out when you get a chance, and eans run screaming from the room if you hear so much as a note of it.