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ALISON STEWART, host:

Perhaps you want to give the gift of good taste in music this Christmas.

(Soundbite of song, "Superstar")

Mr. LUPE FIASCO (Rapper): (Rapping) And then it hit me, standing outside of heaven waiting for God to come and get me. I'm too uncouth, unschooled to the rules and two gum shoe. Too much of a newcomer, and too uncool. Like Shadow and Lavelle, I battle with it well.

STEWART: You might be interested in passing along the work of that gentleman, Lupe Fiasco.

TOURE: Or perhaps not.

STEWART: Maybe not. On this new music Tuesday, he joins Mary J. Blige, Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo and Radiohead, who have, guess what, released a second disc. They could all be potential stocking stuffers - not for Toure, though. Just note to self.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Andy Langer is music critic for Esquire magazine and a friend of THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT. Hi, Andy.

Mr. ANDY LANGER (Music Critic, Esquire Magazine): Good morning. I'm a big Toure fan, so I'm just going to defer to him all morning, if that's…

(Soundbite of laughter)

TOURE: Please, please, Andy, tell them what you really think about Lupe. Come on, now. He's great on…

STEWART: Well, first, let's give people a little background about Lupe Fiasco, because they might not know who he is. He's from Chicago.

TOURE: Well, he's great on paper, right?

STEWART: He's from Chicago.

TOURE: He's a Muslim.

STEWART: This is his sophomore effort. Name of the record is called "The Cool." Doesn't drink.

TOURE: Doesn't drink, doesn't smoke, doesn't want to be around people who drink or smoke.

STEWART: So Andy, she asked facetiously, what does he rap about if he doesn't drink, smoke or isn't into groupies?

Mr. LANGER: Well, you know, there's always himself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LANGER: You know, I don't understand how sort of the hipster pitchfork nation folks like him as much as they do. It's strange to me that, you know, he's somehow become the alternative hip-hop poster boy, hasn't sold a lot of records but has gotten a ridiculous amount of press. And, you know, this record - not a sophomore slump. It's not a great record, either.

STEWART: Well, let's play another track and sort of pick up…

Mr. LANGER: All right.

STEWART: …on what you were talking about. He wrote this track called "Dumb It Down," where he seems to readily acknowledge that he doesn't have the most commercial appeal. Let's play that track.

(Soundbite of song, "Dumb It Down")

Mr. FIASCO: (Rapping) You goin' over - heads Lu. Dumb it down. They tellin' me that they don't feel you. Dumb it down. We ain't graduated from school. Dumb it down. Them big words ain't cool. Dumb it down. Yeah, I heard mean and vicious. Dumb it down. Make a song for the - Dumb it down. We don't care about the weather. Dumb it down. You'll sell more records if you dumb it down.

STEWART: So he would sell more records if he dumbed it down, Andy. Is that true?

Mr. LANGER: If you're going to tell people you're not dumbing it down, then you probably are, right?

TOURE: I just wish you didn't have to hear so much of that. I mean, he seems to want to be good and want to do things, then I tried to listen to the records and I'm like, can I go back to listen to something else? Kanye, Jay-Z, anything else?

STEWART: So Andy, would you recommend this or not? We know Toure wouldn't.

Mr. LANGER: You know, there's a couple of tunes on here. I mean there's one, this "Hello/Goodbye" that UNKLE, the UK production team that do rock records, you know, they produced that, and it's actually really good. And there are some stuff that's got some really complex strings and other stuff that's got real bubblegum poppy beats. But overall, he's just all over the place and too all over the place for a cohesive record that's worth more than downloading a couple of singles.

STEWART: So maybe this is where iTunes is your friend.

Mr. LANGER: Yeah.

STEWART: You find one or two songs you like, download that, maybe save the rest of your money for something else. Could be.

All right. Rivers Cuomo - "Alone: The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo, 1992 to 1997." He's an interesting guy. He quit the industry to study at Harvard. He took a two-year vow of celibacy and let us all know about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: He ditched the band when they were pretty popular. Is the release as interesting as his offstage persona?

Mr. LANGER: It's interesting if you follow recording contracts and the quotas and whether or not they get the right number of records out that's in their contract, and that's what this is. This is a contractual obligation filler.

TOURE: Well, it's all about that nowadays, though, right? It's becoming like baseball or basketball. Like, Radiohead's out of their contract, so they're going do some free agent. Jay-Z's leaving Def Jam. Madonna's moving to a new -I mean, that's becoming as much as part of the whole game as the music itself, right?

Mr. LANGER: Yeah. And I think that, you know, the folks at the Weezer label, you know, believed that there would be a market for this kind of thing because they've been traded so much online. You know, his demos have leaked out over the years and been traded a lot. And earlier this year, a song leaked and did really well at places like The Hype Machine. And so I think they thought there was a market for this, and it's good for the band in that they don't have to turn in another full-length record to fulfill their contract. And it's good for fans who, you know, wanted this stuff and wanted an actual legit copy of it. But beyond that, beyond fans, I'm not sure it's that necessary.

STEWART: Yeah. So fans, though, might like this. So they went, it's like music from the attic. He found the - and put on this release, the demo from "Buddy Holly" which, of course, is a huge Weezer hit. Let's hear a little bit of the demo.

(Soundbite of song, "Buddy Holly")

WEEZER (Rock Band): (Singing) Oo-ee-oo, I look just like Buddy Holly. Oh-oh…

STEWART: Okay. That's enough. I don't know if I'd spend on that.

Mr. LANGER: No and…

STEWART: Does that mean I'm not a fan?

Mr. LANGER: No, I mean, you've got to really want that peek behind the curtain, the peek into Rivers, you know, creative voice. And I'm not sure that, you know, the process - I'm not sure that anybody other than super fans needs that. And Ice Cube's "The Bomb," he has a cover of that that's so horrible, you'd -you yearn for the days of Dynamite Hack and their cover of "Boyz In The Hood," which was - lasted all of about a minute. It's terrible.

STEWART: I like that you didn't even go searching for some music journalist word to make it sound polite. It's just horrible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LANGER: Yeah, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: All right. Let's go into something else that - a little ear sorbet, now. Now Mary J. Blige, eighth album out, "Growing Pains." Let's listen to a track.

(Soundbite of song, "Till the Morning")

Ms. MARY J. BLIGE (Singer; Songwriter): (Singing) Make me lose my mind, lose track of time. Can you touch me? Can you hug me? You keep sending messages you wanting me, but instant messages to me is cold.

STEWART: Okay. So that track was produced by Pharrell. It's "Till the Morning." At this point, I'm wondering does a Mary J. even need a Pharrell?

TOURE: Let's talk about ear sorbet, too. Right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

TOURE: It's so nice and…

STEWART: Yes.

TOURE: …I wish - I miss kind of the Mary who was in pain and singing for the downtrodden secretaries of the world.

STEWART: But she's moved on. She's empowered. She's singing about this new phase in her life. She's found a good man who loves her for her.

TOURE: And do you want to hear Billie Holiday sing happy songs?

STEWART: I don't know. What do you think, Andy?

Mr. LANGER: I mean, I think in some ways, you know, in every way, he's right. I mean, this is the sort of Latification, or however you would say that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LANGER: The View/Oprah version of Mary J. Blige.

STEWART: I called it the Suze Orman groove.

Mr. LANGER: Yeah. Exactly. And, you know, I mean, if that's, you know, there's obviously a place for positivity, a place for her coming through what she came through. And, you know, what happens when you're happy and you have to make records, well, this is the answer. And for folks that aren't going to compare it to the rest of her catalog and aren't going to say, hey, I really need something, you know, downtrodden and depressing, then this is good, positive, well-produced, you know, single after single.

STEWART: I'm having a life - or an ah-ha moment, as Oprah would say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Maybe there's a gender split here. I like seeing Mary J. empowered and happy and singing about it and being all positive. I just think she deserves that at this point in her life.

TOURE: Deserves that at this point in her life, perhaps, but, you know, what powered her, what made her great, who she spoke for - it's like she switched aisles, you know, like a politician. She was representing a constituency, a part of your emotions, now she's not doing that. It just…

STEWART: I think she wants to bring them along with her to happiness.

TOURE: The Latification.

Mr. LANGER: Maybe she wants another eight Grammy nominations.

STEWART: That would be true.

TOURE: Could you say Latification again? I just love that word.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TOURE: Another group that's changing their stripes a little bit - Radiohead. You know, they've been so dark and electronic and, you know. Now, with "In Rainbows," it's much brighter and less electronic. They just sent out the disc box, which if you paid what you wish - and I've paid seven pounds - Andy, what did you pay what - for "In Rainbows?"

Mr. LANGER: I've paid about six pounds…

TOURE: Okay.

Mr. LANGER: …which makes me a little cheaper than you.

TOURE: Good for you. No, but…

STEWART: I paid nothing, because I'm not in the Radiohead bandwagon. I know that's supposedly not the cool thing to say, but I'm just not.

TOURE: Can I have security, please?

STEWART: Just not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TOURE: Oh, good Lord, lady. Well, I paid…

STEWART: Not up for it.

TOURE: …happily paid $80 for the Radiohead disc box. Can you play just a teeny bit of "Bangers 'n Mash"

(Soundbite of song, "Bangers 'n Mash")

RADIOHEAD (Band): (Singing) Whatever turns you on, whatever gets you off, chief of police, or vice-chancellor. I know every blah, blah, decline to judge. You are dancing to my little red book.

TOURE: That's my boy, Thom Yorke, rocking out. Andy, what do you think of the new Radiohead disc that's just come out?

Mr. LANGER: Well, I think that tune is grittier than anything on, you know, either of the records…

TOURE: That's right.

Mr. LANGER: …meaning the original "In Rainbows," or this extra disc. And it actually adds something to the first disc. The rest of the tunes, not so much. I mean, you know, if you needed to buy the big box set, which, you know, you've done yourself a mitzvah by doing so, and you've given extra money to the band and you're a completist and you're a fan, then the second disc is going to be fine. If you're looking for revelation, there's much on here other than that "Bangers 'n Mash" and the beautiful packaging. And the beautiful packaging is the reason to own this second disc. I mean, they're single-handedly bringing back album packaging with that second disc, and the way this thing is collected. But the story of this record is going to be the story of this record - it's how we bought it…

STEWART: Right.

Mr. LANGER: …not really what's on it.

STEWART: Andy Langer is a music critic for Esquire magazine. Thanks for coming on. Bye, Andy.

Mr. LANGER: Thank you.

STEWART: I know you also had a band that you wanted to talk a little bit about, so maybe we'll get you to blog about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Who is it?

TOURE: Birdman's "Five Star Stunna." He's the punitive father or virtual father of the man we talked about yesterday, Weezy F. Baby.

STEWART: All right. So that's probably going to be on our blog. We'll make you do that before you leave.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Toure, thanks a lot. This the - this is that - what is it?

TOURE: It's THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT - not as my mom says, THE BRYANT PARK PROJECTS.

STEWART: Oh. We're at npr.org/bryantpark.

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