Lord Willin', Clipse (Star Trak/Arista)
Eve-olution, Eve (Interscope)
Normally, I dismiss sky-is-falling protestations from other music critics, but there's no way around the conclusion that 2002 thus far has been the worst year for pop music in recent memory, and perhaps no corner of the pop landscape is as in the doldrums as hip hop, the locus of so much of the action for the past 20 years.
One can make the case that the dearth of good hip-hop albums this year is no cause for alarm, that the fact that the best rap records have largely come from indie/boho types and white people is no big deal. After all, though the '90s produced several great mainstream hip-hop album artists -- Outkast, Eminem, Jay-Z, Prince Paul, the Fugees, the Wu-Tang Clan, and their assorted spinoffs -- it's still primarily a singles form, best consumed one song at a time.
But now, even the singles well is running dry. If the chart action is still there, there's a decided lack of artistic excitement. Most of the year's high-profile hip-hop singles sound like generic product even when they sound good.
One problem is the producer as auteur, which has had the effect of elevating form over content --great sounds without meaning or personality. That's one of the reasons I like Lord Willin' by Neptunes protégés Clipse a little better than the production team's own far more celebrated "solo" effort, N.E.R.D.'s In Search Of ... . The Neptunes may rival Timbaland as the most exciting and ubiquitous of contemporary hip-hop producers, but In Search Of only showed that they lack the persona to put over their own best soundscapes. With Virginia-based brothers Pusha T. and Malice, the Neptunes have found a couple of mouthpieces with a worldview.
Unfortunately, this worldview consists of familiar gangsta tales of drug-selling, which make for some (guilty) pleasurable pulp fiction for a few tracks but wear out real fast. On Lord Willin', Pusha T. and Malice come off like onetime Queensbridge hard-asses Mobb Deep with better beats, their strong, sure, articulate flows riding easy over the Neptunes' abrasively funky sonic architecture. But though tracks like the swaggering "Young Blood" and the distortedly percussive "Ego" can be exhilarating, the sharp edge gets dull after a while.
Another promising recent mainstream hip-hop album that falls short is Eve's Eve-olution. Rather than the vision of one production team, Eve-olution uses an army of A-list hip-hop producers (Dr. Dre, Irv Gotti, and Swizz Beats, among others), along with the familiar framework of guest stars (Snoop Dogg, Alicia Keys, Jadakiss), skits, and braggadocio broken up by token romantic songs.
In fairness, Eve has always been a singles artist, but the lead single here, "Gangsta Lovin'," is generic and calculating, falling far short of the standard set by her previous records' lead singles, the infectiously playful "Gotta Man" and the forcefully sexy Gwen Stefani duet "Let Me Blow Your Mind." And there don't seem to be any future ace singles lurking among the album tracks.
Eve is a solid if unspectacular MC and -- given her preeminence among female MCs without coming across as just another boy-toy -- a powerful cultural figure. She's even likable. But she's a marginal artist, and Eve-olution doesn't change that.
So the search for a great major-label hip-hop record in 2002 continues. Jay-Z and Outkast are on deck. We need them now more than ever.
-- Chris Herrington
Grades: B (both records)
Fashionably Late, Linda Thompson (Rounder Records)
This is the record that I thought would never be made. After starting out on the British folk circuit, Linda Thompson made a series of excellent albums in the '70s with her then-husband, folk-guitar god Richard Thompson. She was named female singer of the year in 1982 by Rolling Stone with the release of her and Richard's masterpiece Shoot Out the Lights. That classic album of dark, introspective songs (Richard's specialty) chronicled the breakup of their marriage in harrowing detail. Shortly after its release, Richard left Linda and their three children to start a new life in America with a new woman. Unfortunately, the Thompsons had already contracted to do an American tour together, and it was pure drama. Linda kicked Richard in the shins during his solos and trashed many a dressing room but still gave the best performances of her life. She went on to make a mostly mediocre pop album, overloaded with synthesizers and slickness. Then, in the mid-'80s, she developed a rare anxiety disorder -- she literally could not sing. (Now, what would Freud say about that?)
Fans like me grieved over this development -- in a sense, it was worse than a death, for the purveyor of those wondrous but silenced pipes was still alive and kicking. I think Linda Thompson has one of the best voices in folk, by turns brassy or sensitive. But her talent transcends that genre, as her sense of timing and her interpretive skills allow her to sing pop, swing, folk, or rock with equal ease. Aside from the astounding fact that this record was made at all, another miracle: Lo and behold, who's that singing and playing guitar on the opening track but Richard Thompson himself! I never thought I'd see a musical reconciliation between these two in my lifetime. Alongside Richard, two of their children, Kamila and Teddy, add vocals and guitar to this and several other tracks, so it's truly a family affair.
Fashionably Late is the album Thompson fans all hoped she would make after the breakup. Living in the shadow of her ex all these years has not been easy, but she's finally come into her own as a songwriter as well. (Richard wrote most of their songs, so she was often dismissed as "just the singer.") She's co-written a '40s-style ballroom number with pal Rufus Wainwright, but her collaborations with son Teddy are among the best here, including the haunting "Nine Stone Rig." On "Evona Darling," Teddy does a melt-in-your-mouth harmony with his mum that recalls some of the seamless duets that his ma and pa are famous for, with Van Dyke Parks happily noodling away on Hammond organ and accordion in the background.
As this is primarily a folk album, sorrow, betrayal, and regret are major themes here, but underlying it all is a sense of joy in making music again and a wicked, defiant sense of humor. Linda has recruited many of her old folk stalwarts, including Martin Carthy, to play with her, as well as some of the new mavericks, including fiddler Eliza Carthy (Martin's daughter) and Kate Rusby, the twentysomething reigning queen of the English folk-music scene. What a treasure this release is! May there be many more to come. --Lisa Lumb