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Listening Room: Nas, John Mellencamp and more...
Nas, “Untitled” (Island/Def Jam) ***
New York rapper Nas’ ninth studio album has been the most one of the most talkedabout albums of the year — and not because of a single note of music. In October, Nas (real name Nasir Jones) announced plans to title the album after a much-debated African-American epithet, fueling the national debate about the N-word and prompting reaction from as high up the chain as, Nas contends, the White House. A certain commercial sense prevailed; faced with the potential of major outlets like Wal-Mart boycotting the album, Nas decided to go with “Untitled” — but that, of course, only added to the provocative lyrical fire already driving the 15-song set. There’s a prolific use of the Nword, too, but not in gratuitous fashion; rather, Nas conducts a broad and thoughtful discussion of the perception of the black populace in the eyes of both whites and blacks, coming at one point to a conclusion that the rise of an elite class has made the majority of the populace “sheep, making all ethnicities, colors and creeds niggas, blind to what’s going on.” There’s a bit of gangsta content here — Nas takes some shots at 50 Cent in the opening track, “Queens Get the Money” — but the rapper who declared “Hip Hop is Dead” two years ago spends most of his time exploring higher-minded and mostly positive terrain, urging his listeners to become informed and active and, in short, part of the solution and not the problem; “To question the system/Be the resistance...You can stand by and watch/Or you can march with us,” he challenges in the title track. He has high-credibility guests such as the Last Poets on board to proclaim that “it is absolutely silly and unproductive to have a funeral for (the N-word), and he skewers the conservative leanings of the Fox network on “Sly Fox.” He addresses the album title change in the first single, “Hero,” declaring that he’s “still in musical prison,” while on “Fried Chicken” he and Busta Rhymes trade clever and poignant rhymes about their race’s dietary habits over a sexy track constructed by Mark Ronson and pumped by the Daptones horns. On the albumclosing “Black President,” meanwhile, Nas agrees that “we can change the world” and goes so far as to declare Barack Obama a shoe-in for the job but also asks “when he wins, will he really really care still?” Ultimately it’s those kind of bold and unapologetic statements — and questions — that fuel a discussion that’s much more interesting than the controversy over “Untitled’s” proposed original title.
John Mellencamp, “Life Death Love and Freedom” (Hear Music)***
The title alone indicates that John Mellencamp has some big issues to sing about on his 20th studio album, and that it’s not necessarily going to be a pleasant ride. It is compelling, however, as Mellencamp and producer T-Bone Burnett traverse an unrelentingly bleak landscape populated by plain-spoken narrators and richly detailed characters and settings that lean more on the death part of the title equation — with side trips into politics and philosophical essays in which Mellencamp candidly questions his own capacity for the continuing struggle. He winds up singing about “A Brand New Song,” and he’s certainly doing that thanks to Burnett, whose austere and atmospheric production brings a fresh kind of texture to the performance aspects of these songs. Many of the 14 tracks do without drums, hooks and dynamics, instead employing rolling, steady-tempoed soundscapes that prove well-suited accompaniment to these musings of a wearied warrior.
NEW & NOTEWORTHY:
Bajofondo, “Mar Dulce (Sweet Sea)” (Decca/Surco): A set of “modern cosmic tango” from the Argentine-Uruguayan collective led by decorated film composer Gustavo Santaolalla (“Brokeback Mountain,” “Babel”).
David Banner, “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (Universal): The fifth album by the Mississippi rapper features guest appearances by Lil Wayne, Akon, Snoop Dogg, Chris Brown, Yung Joc, Chamilliionaire and more.
Jay Brannan, “goddamned” (Great Depression):
The debut solo album from the actor who won raves for his performance in John Cameron Mitchell’s “Shortbus.”
Drew Emmitt, “Long Road” (Compass): The Leftover Salmon frontman covers Supertramp, Van Morrison and the Marshall Tucker Band on this solo outing.
Foreigner, “No End in Sight: The Very Best of Foreigner” (Rhino): This two-CD compilation includes three unreleased tracks including “Too Late,” the group’s first new song in more than a decade.
Delta Goodrem, “Delta” (Decca): The domestic release of the Australian pop singer’s latest album, which topped the charts and went triple-platinum in her homeland.
The Grascals, “Keep on Walkin’” (Rounder): The reigning International Bluegrass Music Association’s Entertainers of the Year return with their first set of new material in two years.
The Hold Steady, “Stay Positive” (Vagrant): The fourth album from the Minneapolis by-way-of-Brooklyn indie rock quintet.
Hot Club of Detroit,
“Night Town” (Mack Avenue): The Motor City gypsy jazz troupe continues to mine the legacy of Django Reinhardt on its second album.
Jet Black Stare, “In This Life” (Island): The Vancouver rock quintet is “Ready to Roll” (it’s first single) on its debut album.
Nation Beat, “Legends of the Preacher” (Modiba): American and Brazilian styles weave and intertwine on this collective’s latest effort.
Negativeland, “Thigmotactic” (Seeland): The California sound collagists release the first song-based album of their 28-year history.
O.A.R., “All Sides” (Everfine/Lava/Atlantic):
The quintet hopes to make some more “Love and Memories” with its sixth album, which was produced mostly by hit-maker Matt Wallace (Maroon5, Blues Traveler).
Soundtrack, “American Teen” (Columbia): Songs by Black Kids, the Ting Tings, MGMT and Cat Stevens populate the companion to the Sundance Film Festival awardwinning documentary.
Randy Travis, “Around the Bend” (Warner Bros.): Travis steps off the spiritual path he’s been on and releases his first new album of secular country material since 2000.
Wild Sweet Orange, “We
Have Cause to Be Uneasy” (Canvasback Music): The Alabama rock quartet’s debut full-length was recorded over a two-year period in both Birmingham and Austin, Texas.
Wire, “Object 47” (Pink Flag): The British cult favorite’s first album in five years (and 47th item in its catalog, hence the title) is also its first without guitarist Dave Gilbert.
Ace Young, “Ace Young” (Pazzo Music): The Season 5 “American Idol” finalist finally releases his debut album.
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