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Mike Ladd - Nostalgialator

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Artist: Mike Ladd

Album: Nostalgialator

Label: Def Jux

Review date: Jan. 14, 2008

Mike Ladd first released Nostalgialator in 2004 in Europe. Although well received, Nostalgialator has, until now, been unavailable in the United States. The album is complex, vast in style and disposition, and does not lend itself to one defining proposition or theme. But, for your consideration, here are three possible takes on the record, all of which are qualified and problematic:

1. Nostalgialator is political art.

    Mike Ladd has a message. On first blush, this is the obvious response to Nostalgialator, reinforced by the surreal war machine – a tank rendered as a hulking and sinewy beast – on the album’s cover. Nostalgialator’s material is mostly percussive and bombastic, and song titles like “Dire Straits Play Nuremberg,” “Black Orientalist,” and “Afrostatic” are almost embarrassingly unsubtle in their political displays. The album’s context was also highly political. Ladd recorded Nostalgialator at a point when opposition to the Iraq war – especially opposition in France, the site of Ladd’s current expatriation – had begun to reach a fevered pitch. In keeping with the mood of the time, Ladd peppered his album with references to George Bush and Osama bin Laden.

    Yet, for all of these political jabs, Ladd fails to deliver a knockout. Ladd is a careful writer, so if there were an explicit political message to be had, one would expect it to be clear. Nostalgialator offers nothing of the sort. Instead, Ladd writes obscurely. Even a song like “Housewives at Play,” which is simply phrased relative to Nostalgialator’s verbose offerings, is abstruse. “Housewives” begins as an ironical take on conspicuous consumption but inexplicably detours into a detailing of the observations by a lecherous field hockey coach. By song’s end, one can only conclude that if Ladd has some political intent, he’s certainly hiding it from view. This is to say nothing about “Black Orientalist” and “Wild Out Day,” in which Ladd alludes to many a liberal talking point – e.g., “Who needs Marx in a land of a thousand markets?” – but, again, to uncertain effect. Ladd takes himself to be a poet rather than a pundit, and it is with this understanding that one should probably refrain from reading Nostalgialator as rhetoric.

2. Nostalgialator is a cross-cultural hybrid.

    Mike Ladd is a polyglot. He may have gotten his start in hip hop’s trenches but, as he has aged, his taste and acumen have expanded. Nostalgialator traipses through hip hop, hardcore, ambient, and country-western. This is all well and good, but being able to play in several genres does not mean that Ladd has actually synthesized them in a form unique or greater than its constituent parts. Nostalgialator’s combination of musical forms feels more scattered than united. Ladd may speak with near fluency in several musical languages, but Nostalgialator illustrates Ladd’s absence of a fully independent voice.

3. Nostalgialator is a work of auteurism.

    Mike Ladd is a serious artist. In recent times, the hip hop underground has become a gallery of weirdos and artsy-fartsy pretense, of men masked and unfettered by rhyming offbeat, forming a chorus that sings increasingly in the keys of the bizarre and sardonic. These tendencies are present on Nostalgialator, but not to the extent that one can safely identify the album as a member in the Anti-Pop milieu. Ladd, rather, is staking his own ground as a performer, forsaking mere weirdness for something that is supposed to be intelligence and excellence of craft. His artistic model, in many ways, is less KRS-One than Tom Waits or Prince.

    This description of Ladd as an artiste would be easier to accept if the substance of his work matched his aesthetic yearnings. Consider “How Electricity Really Works” and “Off to Mars,” two songs where Ladd’s lyricism and songwriting, respectively, are fully exposed. “How Electricity Really Works,” indebted to Gil Scott Heron’s spoken word, anthropomorphizes Benjamin Franklin as a source of electricity, illuminating our cities and hunted by electric utilities. It is a charming conceit, but its figurative language is only descriptive and fails to provide greater insight. “Off to Mars,” on the other hand, is a largely instrumental effort showcasing Ladd’s abilities as a songwriter and arranger. The song is a fuzzy lounge tune, a whisky-eyed salutation about intergalactic space travel. It is competent but forgettable, conventional in contrast to Ladd’s standard-defying ambitions. At some point, Ladd may become the auteur he sketches on Nostalgialator. This re-release, however, only outlines Ladd’s independent streak.

By Ben Yaster

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