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Photo by Jonathan Mannion

JAY-Z
The Blueprint (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)

He’s the jigga you hate to love: Practically everything Jay-Z espouses — rampant materialism, reckless bravado, sexual objectification — reflects hip-hop’s tiresome self-focus and social irrelevancy. But it’s a testament to his irresistible charisma that no matter what Jay puts out, we return with hands out, begging for more.

Part of his appeal lies in how Jay-Z’s the EveryMC — he doesn’t simply evade MC categories, he exceeds them: less thuggish than DMX, but more brutal with his wordplay as he tears cross-town rival Nas a new asshole on “The Takeover”; less of a pimp than Too Short, but he’ll charm you into singing the chorus to his salacious “Girls, Girls, Girls” for the rest of the year; less conscious than Mos Def, but his gift for introspection on songs like the title track and “Song Cry” are undeniably compelling personal narratives. Commanding the most presence of any rapper in a post-Tupac/Biggie era, Jay-Z can live up to his claim that he’s the “God MC/Me/J-Hova.”

Jay-Z’s now released six albums in just five years, and Blueprint is his best since debuting with Reasonable Doubt in 1996. That’s no small feat given how hip-hop’s algebra usually makes quantity the inverse of quality, but The Blueprint is executed beautifully as Jay-Z balances jeep-beat summer anthems like “Izzo” against the razor-edged drama of “U Don’t Know” while still partying Latin-style on “Hola’ Hovito.” Apart from Jay-Z’s myriad styles, give equal credit to Bink, Kayne West and Just Blaze, the main producers responsible for the album’s sublime musical character. The trio raid the R&B catalogs of the 1970s with abandon, juicing up on Motown’s sugary soul for “Izzo,” tapping into Al Green’s gospel roots on “Blueprint” and stripping off Studio 54 disco elements for “All I Need.” It’s a retro sound, to be sure, but the flashback flavor is far more an asset than a liability.

More than ever, hip-hop needs a leader who can inspire its wayward flock, and Jay-Z’s the default nominee at present. But The Blueprint can’t create the same transcendent magic that albums by OutKast and Lauryn Hill have wielded. Jay’s too in love with himself to aspire to a greater purpose beyond self-praise, and while ego’s long been the fuel for hip-hop’s passion, alas, it’s also the cancer behind its discontent. To that degree, The Blueprint is solid proof that Jay-Z represents some of the worst values hip-hop has to offer, but some of its greatest potential as well.

THE BLACK WIDOWS
Arocknaphobia (Vital Gesture)

“All instrumental, all original, all evil” is the motto of the Black Widows, the L.A.-based instrumental combo whose members shroud their true identities behind black-stocking masks and secondhand industrial jump suits. Unlike the Lucha Libre–inspired surfcasters Los Straitjackets, the Black Widows go incognito for practical purposes: Not only do their disguises allow them to handily sidestep irate owners of the clubs they regularly trash, they also serve to protect the innocent. Guitarists Dr. Vibe and Bob the Snake, bassist Mac Phisto, drummer The Executioner and keyboardist-percussionist-provocateur Jackson the Ripper are all members of some of the city’s most critically acclaimed bands, whose fans would be traumatized to find their heroes moonlighting in a group of such vile intent and lousy haberdashery.

But if the evil that the Widows do will live after them, so shall their sinfully excellent tunes. Arocknaphobia, the band’s long-awaited CD debut, melds the melodic pith of the Ventures, Tornados et al., with the high-volume piss ’n’ vinegar of vintage Blue Oyster Cult. Drums rumble, guitars roar, and small mammals scurry for cover, yet the hooks of tracks like “Agent Double-O Swing,” “War Dance” and the Davie Allan homage “Road Hawg” stay with you long after the smoke clears. Of course, the true mark of any quality instro band is the ability to write thought-provoking titles, and — as “My Least Favorite Martian,” “Rasputin’s Holiday” and “Cosmic Ape” attest — the Widows come up aces on that front as well.

If there was ever a band capable of sharing stages with both Dick Dale and Slipknot, it would have to be the Widows, and these 18 tracks ably replicate the magic and menace of their live show; it’s just like being there, minus the stray projectiles and spilled beer. Got Arocknaphobia? You will. (Dan Epstein)

BENT
Programmed To Love (Ministry of Sound)

“We want to be the expert turd-polishers.” A lofty aspiration for Simon Mills of Nottingham, England’s Bent. On their debut album (which came out last year in the U.K. and is finally getting its domestic release), Mills and partner Nail Tolliday, who pride themselves on making quality tracks out of “absolute rubbish,” have been fortunate enough to wrangle a kitschy yet lush electronic-pop hybrid out of everything from Spanish Christian-music records and Nana Mouskouri, to deaf children banging on instruments. (A great deal of their inspiration comes from the records they pick up for spare change at flea markets.)

 

Perpetuating the modern attempt to re-contextualize music through sampling, Programmed’s prime attraction is its floaty and bizarre soundtrack quality, which isn’t a stretch given the pair’s fascination with risk-taking production à la experimental techno label Warp Records, combined with Mills’ background making sample CDs of the percussion-loop variety. “Cyclons in Love” outdoes Daft Punk’s “Digital Love” at its own freaky game, as a lilting acoustic guitar feeds off drums, samples and vocoders. “Invisible Pedestrian” pulsates fluttering snares, swelling flange and stretches of Moog next to a moody bass riff, while “I Remember Johnny,” a blunted chillout classic if there ever was one, employs waves of reverb and echo as unintelligible, distorted vocals make it more (in)human. But it’s not just such obtuse tinkering that holds the record together; delicate pop tracks such as “Private Road” and “Swollen” (featuring the silky vocals of friend and collaborator Zoe) sit comfortably next to the album’s less straightforward moments without sounding out of place. (Stacy Osbaum)

VARIOUS ARTISTS
The Funky 16 Corners (Stones Throw)

Finally someone’s gotten it right. Though funk compilations are everywhere now, no one’s really tried to properly package an album that pays tribute to the music and to the artists responsible for crafting it. Many anthologies seem more like exercises in ego-preening on the part of the compilers, with almost no information given on the original musicians — as much as their songs are valued, the progenitors are left to fade into obscurity. Here’s the long-overdue corrective: The Funky 16 Corners, assembled by L.A.’s funk wunderkind Eothen “Egon” Alapatt.

The 22 cuts here represent some of the most intense, uproarious, sublime and inspired sides to emerge from the soul movement of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Most are
taken from forgotten, independent-label 7-inchers such as the Highlighters Band’s frenetic dance-floor mover “Funky 16 Corners” or James Reese and the Progressions’ soul-fried “Let’s Go (It’s Summertime).” From Houston’s Kashmere Stage Band — the greatest high school band ever — comes their anthem, “Kashmere,” a genius arrangement of drum snaps and scorching brass, and for more mellow fare, check Billy Wooten’s rich and warm cover of “In the Rain.” One of the bonus tracks includes Cut Chemist’s jaw-dropping “Bunky’s Pick,” a seven-minute mega-mix built off of the anthology’s inclusions.

But the music is just half the story. Alapatt interviewed members of every band represented and includes extensive liner notes on each song’s genealogy and the groups’ biographies. Add in publicity stills of the bands in all their souled-out glory, and Funky 16 Corners becomes an unearthed time capsule of invaluable worth and dedication, setting the new benchmark for what all compilations — funk or otherwise — should aspire to. (Oliver Wang)

A Funky 16 Corners tribute will be held at Leonardo’s Night Club, 831 S. La Brea Ave., on Wednesday, November 14. The show features Breakestra with original members of the Highlighters Band, Leroy and the Drivers, and Ernie and the Top Notes, as well as DJs Cut Chemist, J-Rocc, Egon and Peanut Butter Wolf.

RESISTANT
Ancient Future (Seventh Generation)



Photo by Sandra De La Loza


Good art is often political. A John Coltrane solo or a Jackson Pollock painting makes more difference than a Jesse Jackson speech (and slogans make lousy music and blockheaded posters), because art can dodge the deceit and cliché of words to strike in subtle ways. This Resistant CD has both art and slogans. They never work together, but the art succeeds separately.

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Resistant is one L.A. modern-metal band that can splash considerable funk onto its groove, and sounds best when it does. Band members “Vic, Ralph, Anthony and Katina” spill over with creative ideas, like the heavy, howling bridge of “Ball and Chain,” the ghostly, moaning intro to “Feathered Serpent,” and the way Native American chants and wonky Clavinet meld with metal guitar riffs on “Ancient Future.” Dig the muscular studio sound (recorded by hard-rock vet Schneebi and mastered by Mark Wheaton) and Anthony E.’s striking mythical-symbolic cover.

 

There’s also much that’s ordinary. The croaky rant-raps make the whole thing seem one-dimensional (when in fact it’s not). Too much double kick drum robs the sound of dynamics. Worst are the lyrics. “The people united will never be defeated.” “Politicians are for sale.” “Leeches sucking blood for business.” But: “We don’t have to tell you the truth/you already know so well.”

That’s right. (Greg Burk)

NYDIA ROJAS
Nydia (Hollywood)



Photo by Albert Sanchez


Local prodigy Nydia Rojas has been singing the best of ranchera music since she was 5. A leading light of the mariachi renaissance that has been taking place on this side of the border, Rojas is undoubtedly among the best vocalists in a field of great female singers. She’s been recording since she was 16, belting new songs as well as the classics of ranchera legend José Alfredo Jiménez. Now 21, she has just released Nydia, her first venture into pop.

For her maiden excursion outside mariachi, Rojas chose to play it safe and do covers of Latin-pop master Juan Gabriel. The 14 songs were selected out of 350 of Gabriel’s vast collection from his early composing days in the ’70s and ’80s, and Rojas gets a hand from the master himself in duets with Gabriel on songs like the soulful “Siempre en Mi Mente” (“Always on My Mind”); their best work together is “Insensible” (“Insensitive”), an early-’80s bolero hit that should become another chart-topper in the young singer’s career. Produced by Rojas’ longtime producer, Carlos Cabral “Junior,” Nydia often finds her seemingly lost in the midst of either too many experimental grooves or too much jazzy instrumentation. Yet her beautiful voice saves the album from being just another Juan Gabriel covers collection. Rojas comes through with the ballad “Ya Lo Se Que Tu Te Vas” (“I Know That You Are Leaving”), which is dedicated to her recently departed father. “Me Gusta Bailar” (“I Like To Dance”), a hit from the disco-era soundtrack of the movie Al Otro Lado del Puente (On the Other Side of the Bridge), sounds freshly imbued with Rojas’ youthful innocence.

Nydia leaves little doubt that Rojas would be among Gabriel’s best cover vocalists if he would produce and write for her an album with new songs, as he has for greats like Rocio Durcal. That would be something to behold. (Joseph Treviño)

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