Music Reviews

Mike Ladd Nostalgialator

(Definitive Jux) Buy it from Insound Rating - 8/10

Slam poetry has always seemed suspect. Anything that demands hushed reverence is. Slam adds to the normal poetry atmosphere a self congratulatory aggressiveness to it. Man am I one white asshole. Still, slam has punished me too often with trite and strident half poets shouting verses they half thought out. Perhaps it was just too easy a pose to mime, leaving it open to leagues of locals with all of the confidence but none of the passion or brilliance. Didn't straight rap have these same problems?

Some figures kept a torch burning in me that there was a hypercreative slam scene somewhere (read: New York City) that the smug knockoffs I had been exposed to didn't hint at despite their best efforts. Notable are Saul Williams, showcased in the aptly titled 1998 film Slam, and the gentlemen of Antipop Consortium, who emerged from the 90s slam circles to develop a strain of hip hop that merged overwhelming lyricism and mic command with a futuristic aesthetic indebted equally to early electro and the millenial developments of the artists on Warp Records (their eventual label, including Arrhythmia, still a contender for best hip hop album of this decade).

Not to be forgotten is renaissance man Mike Ladd. A published author and champion of the Nuyoirican Poets' Cafe before he even got into music (and expatriate to Paris since), I came upon him through hip hop. His work as both the underground Infesticons and the jiggy Majesticons were wonderfully imaginative bits of satirical roleplay, portraying no less than an epic comic book battle for the soul of hip hop. Ladd's solo effort Nostalgialator dates back to 2004, released in Europe on !K7. Just now it officially reaches North America, courtesy of the sympathetic ultra intelligent rap bastards at Def Jux.

In a way Def Jux is an ideal medium for the mania that is Nostalgialator. The album is packed tightly with musical and lyrical ideas and ambition. Nostalgialator, however, doesn't sound like it was cooked up in the insular Def Jux incubator, as all of its tricks are not crammed into every single bar. There are extremely confrontational and busy tracks, such as the invigorating Trouble Shot, but there is a refreshing amount of space here. Effervescent synths given room to linger and whatnot.

Nostalgialator reflects the reach of an extremely smart and charismatic man artistically bred in the "independent as fuck" atmosphere of 90s NYC but ambitious enough to leave his fucked up country. The album spans gritty hip hop fury to jazz intellectualism to psychedelic shamelessness. This isn't the great multigenre huckabuck masterpiece we're always looking for. Its far too personal and idiosyncratic. Nostalgialator is tonally cohesive while far reaching, allowing a trademarked keyboard plink to echo into space in one track while pounding relentlessly the next.

How Electricity Really Works demonstrates the power slam might have to make one wince, then massages it with a dulcet psychedelic backdrop and lyrics more thought provoking than the Moody Blues ever concocted, while Learn to Fall marries that poetic shamelessness to an undeniable beat and production. Off to Mars? and the title track are both spacey and unhinged, the latter purely instrumental, and between themselves deserve serious comparison to Bowie, Zappa, and Scott Walker.

None of this prattle really hints at how much fun, for all of its loftiness, Nostalgialator can be. Closing track Sail Away Ladies drops all pretense and just is a blues tune, but one with an airy good spirit and effortless funk, some modern blips and cuts sliding easily into the mix. The one track this album may be known for in years to come, however, is an unqualified blast. Housewives At Play recalls the euphoric heights of the Majesticons. So strutting, cocky, and sweet is this track that its critical or satirical aims end up bulldozed by the ass shaking swagger. Despite serious, intelligent content, there is a great time to be had here.