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November 11, 2008
First there was the Kanye West vs. 50 Cent beef, then the pitting of PJ Harvey vs. Nellie McKay, back to the beats with Lifesavas vs. Ghostface Killah, and a weird old-v-new matchup of Mike Doughty vs. Nick Lowe. All of those theoretical musical rumbles, however, went down before the sociopolitical steel cage match that was the 2008 general election. Today the world is a different place. White guilt may still be in play, but political pundits seem confident that the Bradley Effect has gone the way of the Whig Party. Barack Obama is the president elect. Let Starbucking indie-wavers unite to celebrate Black Music For White America.


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TV on the Radio
Dear Science
Interscope
Rating: 8.5/10 ?

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The Knux
Remind Me In 3 Days
Universal
Rating: 8.3/10 ?

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You wouldn't know it from rap fans sore over Lil' Wayne's ascendancy, but 2008 is a great year for black music (in addition to November 4th's news that it just became a great year for black - and most - people in general). Nas continues to Care, the Roots banged out another stunner, Mr. Lif and Akrobatik continue to pore over equal parts consciousness and beats. And those are just the rappers. Fela Kuti's son Seun debuted a brave run-through with his dad's band, Al Green delivered a breathtaking run-through with probably the same crew as 20 years ago, and The-Dream topped his protege Rihanna's success last year with his own temptation-gluttonous duet.

But the big complaint has been a lack of innovators. Even the Roots' formula is down pat; no matter how many keyboards they add at this point, they know they're working a Sound. Two autumn surprises remedy this issue with results often stunning in both their simplicity and their sweep of sound.

Surprise, you ask? TV on the Radio? Winners of the more under-30-oriented Idolator poll? Coming clean: I hate TV on the Radio. Hate 'em. Earlier this year I made this clear in a hit piece that I'd only amend with an update that I now like the song "Dirtywhirl." That is, until Dear Science. They're still not innovators really, though it no longer matters. With the lyrical content of U2, the sonic appetite of Beck, the dour-appearing universality of Radiohead and a penchant for covering the Pixies, it's easy to see in retrospect why everyone went nuts over them a few years ago, even if the content hadn't yet kicked in yet. I found their earnest humorlessness offensive for years, not to mention the lack of ferocity to back it up, and I still find their taste in production too thin and wavering for the compass heading they appear to be working. But their most difficult song, "I Was a Lover," ultimately fascinated me, and now their most melodic stuff from Dear Science (the sexy "Crying," the joyful "Shout Me Out") tickles me immensely, and I can only conclude that their middling muds, like "A Method" and "Blues From Down Here" (and the still-awful "Staring at the Sun"), were the real blockade.

Dear Science adds a bunch of surprising elements to the band's sound that no one's making much of, presumably because they're Black, meaning you'd hear a hell of a lot more chatter if Radiohead randomly turned in rapped verses or deep disco, as TVOTR bring out with "Dancing Choose" and "Golden Age," respectively. Thing is, these sounds don't actually come naturally for them, and as easy as this record sounds, it's the first left-turn of their supposed left-turn-filled career. The Ramones-inspired "ba ba bas" that dot album opener "Halfway Home," and line-of-the-year candidate "Jackboot! Fuck your war/ 'cuz I'm fat and in love" that keynotes the furious funk of "Red Dress" -- these aren't logical progressions. They're genuinely thought-out advances from a smart band that just got smarter, and leaped about twenty points up the pleasurability scale. I should mention that Tunde Adebimpe no longer seems interested in hitting notes he can't. Fans of the old records seem to be biting for the most part, though if there's any criticism that it's not as innovative, they're right. Some critics I know are annoyed that a record so easy and unchallenging may top the polls this year. Welcome to universality, guys. Sometimes it delivers.

Newcomers the Knux also have the potential to be a huge critical and commercial success, though the latter is more likely and the former could make a respectable showing even so, if only people knew who the fuck they were. My West Coast counterpart Jeff Weiss (no relation, weirdly) compares them to Bloc Party making Stankonia, an exciting description but a little over-the-top. The duo, comprised of Rah Al Milio and Krispy Kream, are rappers who play instruments, and not in the ?uestlove way. While they tour with a backing band, all the difficulties and logistics of what can only be called rap songwriting are their own and relegated to no bandleader. As such, they have a more fully-realized sound of their own than TVOTR ever did, which blends an indeededly OutKast influence with guitars unlike any heard in rap-rock yesterday or today. Clean, Hendrixian riffs detour into Afropop-style slides on "Daddy's Little Girl" and indie noise-soloing on likely-hit "Roxxanne," though they're most prominent on the bluesy strut "Bang! Bang!," a tune!-tune! that seems like it could go on for ages.

The Knux's melodic capacity is hardly limited to the six-string, with best-in-show single "Cappuccino" exploiting those otherworldly zooms and squelches that will earn them OutKast comparisons until they make a Dear Science of their own. They're indeed nerds, in case this had you thinking (the album's only skit is named "Pea Knuckle," hur hur), though there's plenty of L.A. gangsta here as well (the gun-talk of "Bang! Bang!" and the misogyny play "Parking Lot"), neither of which is played up and therefore should confuse hipster heads and thugs alike. Like the Roots and TVOTR, the duo's lack of an image is refreshing, though it may be the downfall of newbs who haven't yet transcended anonymity beyond some friendly reviews. Their 17-song record could do with some chopping, though it's hard to say where ("Hush," even with a female orgasm in the breakdown, does move a bit slow), and it's not really the best anything of the year. But Remind Me In 3 Days... does break down barriers, humbly, between two audiences, and it's catchy enough that either or both might embrace it yet. As my country just demonstrated, anything can happen.

Take it from a TV on the Radio hater, Dear Science is worth every pull quote. And though I don't have that sort of credibility for the Knux, they can hang too. Maybe if the success d'estime can teach the Knux something about humanity, the rappers can give them a primer on guitar tunings.

SEE ALSO: www.tvontheradio.com
SEE ALSO: www.interscope.com/knux

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Dan Weiss
Dan Weiss is the music editor for LAS. Formerly an editorial intern at CMJ and creator of the now defunct What was It Anyway?, his work has appeared in Village Voice, Pitchfork, Philadelphia Inquirer, Stylus and Crawdaddy among others. He resides in Brooklyn where he enjoys questionable lifestyle choices and loud guitars.

See other articles by Dan Weiss.

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