Monday, November 27, 2006

What Jay-Z Is Trying To Do


I can't see it coming down my eyes so I have to make the songs suck

Jay-Z is a pretty bad CEO and a pretty great self-marketer. What other explanation is there for letting two of the year's absolute best albums (Game Theory and Fishscale) fall by the chart wayside and yet churning out near-platinum first-week sales for his own "comeback" album, by general consensus both the year's worst rap record (Idlewild had almost four decent tracks, Kingdom Come has about two) and biggest disappointment in any genre. Musically, even Rick Ross outclassed him just by keeping it simple and dirty. And by not hiring Chris Martin. Fuck, Rick Ross even outclassed him lyrically just for not saying "30 is the new 20." It's especially depressing since 2006 is the best year for hip-hop since. . . 2003, the year Jay supposedly retired. The now-acknowledged greatest MC of all time is certainly missed when talents as diverse as Ghostface, T.I., The Roots, Rhymefest, the promising Lupe Fiasco, Chamillionaire, and even bullshitters Rick Ross and The Game have all made honorable-to-great records using their ears. If comparing Kingdom Come to Idlewild is harsh, well, the only thing separating one delusion from the other is 800,000 units or so. But Jay is just as unaware of his audience as Andre 3000 at this point. What Jay thinks is that he's crossed over to what Status Ain't Hood calls the "James Blunt/Rascal Flatts" crowd when he's really just a made legend resting on his made name, made hype, made reputation and simply forgot the made album. Or did he forget how to rap? I'm honestly worried that three years of boardrooms and water-treading cameos has left the man without a relevant word in his rhyming dictionary; even the relatively high points of Kingdom Come, "Do You Wanna Ride?" and "Oh My God," get by on John Legend's gorgeous hook and Just Blaze's raucous cut-up "Whipping Post" stabs respectively. Where Kingdom Come succeeds is how Jay intended it: as a huge, marketed multimedia event. For starters, he got his opening-week sales that he pushed "Show Me What You Got" like he felt it deserved. But by cultivating his own mass popularity, he lived up to the image he wanted too: Superman come back from the dead, the little old man that could. Even Jay's weaker albums got by on persona, simply by becoming everything he wanted to at the time. To wit, a little flowchart of Jay's self-made mythology from album-to-album:

Reasonable Doubt (1996) - Not as great all the way through as everyone pretends. But certainly as street. He dove into his self-patented, oft-imitated "thug gone mainstream" shtick by slicking up his drug deals with Mary J. Blige ("Can't Knock The Hustle"). He grabbed Biggie just before he died for the eternal credibility the album's no doubt retained ("Brooklyn's Finest," the best track, thanks to the Biggie-Jay trade-offs and relentless player piano). But just as he turned '80s basslines onto thug-love hits with Foxy Brown ("Ain't No Nigga"), he kept his credibility intact by sampling Nas on "Dead Presidents II" philosophizing on "D'evils" and freestyling on "22 Twos." B+

In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 (1997) - Jay's first ripoff, that is, if you hate Puff Daddy-era R&B syrup. I do. Babyface's "(Always Be My) Sunshine" is the only classic here. Jay succeeds a little prematurely as the loverman he painted himself to be on Mariah Carey's "Heartbreaker." I prefer him as the whore of "Girls, Girls, Girls." B-

Vol. 2. . . Hard Knock Life (1998) - Hits, hits, hits. Jay knows how to make 'em, and I'm not gonna knock 'em. This is his first acknowledgement of the pop world or anything crossover. For one thing, he's got musical ideas (sampling Annie and making 3 mil off it??) and hooks ("Nigga What, Nigga Who" clatters unstoppably, while "Can I Get A. . . ." pretty much invented the "bounce"). Jay as hook-crafting chart-topper, complete with the filler that mars such pop takeovers. Almost there. B

Vol. 3. . . The Life And Times Of S. Carter (1999) - No one remembers it now, but this was considered Jay's peak at the time. Reviews were excellent, and didn't carry the weight of "is he the greatest rapper in the world or not?" that the overrated Reasonable Doubt and The Black Album will now be remembered as, despite the tracks that seriously weigh them down. Nor was Jay trying to be the greatest rapper, or even the most popular. Vol. 3 remains his best because here he was Jay the entertainer, cranking out, yeah, an enormous hit ("Big Pimpin'"), but mostly just a flawless collection of memorable beats, hooks and verses, one after another. Some were exotic ("Hova Song"), some relaxing ("Things That You Do"), some playfully murderous ("So Ghetto") or triumphantly shallow ("Do It Again"), with even a hard battle ("It's Hot [Some Like It Hot]") or gangsta cut ("Watch Me," "Come And Get Me") thrown in. Even both the hidden tracks are fun. Stylish, widescreen, and cinematic without ever getting a complex about it, except on "Dope Man," featuring MTV News' Serena Altschul on a fun-hubristic media indictment that pretends Jay was ever as threatening as Eminem was to White America. Comparable to LL Cool J at his Mama Said Knock You Out peak, only less hungry and more melodically satisfying, this is the album where Jay was everything to everyone, pop to street, serious to hilarious, and everything he claimed to be: J-Hova. One of the five most entertaining rap records ever made. A+

The Dynasty: Roc La Familia (2000) - Not at all bad, which goes double since it's a posse album, Jay shores up his pimp and hustler cred again after one too many Mariah cameos. Memphis Bleek, Beanie Sigel, Scarface, Snoop, R. Kelly and Freeway all help out, none of them at all bad (except for maybe the always tasteless Snoop, who usually remains cool, but comes off like a creep on "Stick 2 The Script"), but none excellent or outshining the star of the "familia." Remembered as a flop, it still got 4 stars in Rolling Stone and has possibly Jay's best collection of beats ever. I call it his blaxploitation record, doing ugly things here and there that even his smug charm can't paint over, from "Parking Lot Pimpin'" to aligning his own allegations with (yuck) R. Kelly's on "Guilty 'Til Proven Innocent." He has fun with concepts though, like getting hit on by his friend's sister ("Soon You'll Understand"), bitching about his deadbeat father ("") or teaching clowns who call 1-900-Hustler on the riotous track of the same name. The beats are as tough as the boasts on "Change The Game" and "Streets Is Talking" and downright epic on the "Intro." Even the "pop" material like "Parking Lot Pimpin'" sounds grimy. More vividly gangsta than anything on Reasonable Doubt except "Brooklyn's Finest." A-

The Blueprint (2001) If you haven't yet figured out that I'm warmer to Jay's pop material, his credibility album is where me and the hiphop heads can meet halfway. The best rhymes and beats of his career all in one greatly accessible place, on display for both the heads who couldn't wait to hear him obilterate Nas on "Takeover" and the Z100 gum-smackers who hum "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" on the school bus. Except for the astonishing, Doors-sampling "Takeover," the post-Timbaland bubblegum-exotica of "Jigga That Nigga" and Eminem's dramatically orchestrated "Renegade," every damn track juxtaposes a gorgeous soul sample, usually chipmunked, and only a boring stretch of mush like "Song Cry" towards the end threatens to sink the masterpiece, before the Eminem track brings it back up. "Izzo," the hilarious "Girls, Girls, Girls" and the "take-em-to-church" "Heart Of The City" have Jay's best showmanship ever, not to mention the undeniable "Takeover," which proves beef doesn't have to be humorless. The Source gave it 5 mics and for once I don't disagree. A

Unplugged (2001) - Here, Jay takes that showmanship and makes his hiphop masterstroke an flesh and blood as an alternative masterstroke for people who shit their pants for live band hiphop and love The Roots. I wish it had more Vol. 3 but I'm not gonna argue with what he included (except for "Song Cry"): "Takeover," complete with Mobb Deep and Nas "samples" and ad-libs, "Izzo" snapping from lounge-jazz to its pop form, a medley of the best Doubt-Vol. 1-Vol. 2 hits (dig ?uestlove's right hand wrecking "Jigga What, Jigga Who"), and special guests Jaguar Wright and Mary J. Blige tearing "Heart Of The City" and "Can't Knock The Hustle" to shreds. Easily the best live album in hiphop history, and one of the best in rock history. His Che Guevara shirt for the taping tops the persona off: Jay-Z as full-blown rock star. A

The Blueprint 2: The Gift And The Curse (2002) - Not as bad as the singles, filler and reviews would have you believe. Yes, this is Jay as Bonoesque epic blowhard, the Jay who blandly covers Tupac ("Bonnie And Clyde '03") and samples a famous Biggie verse for a song called "A Dream." And as Bob Christgau noted, he settles for Paul Anka's "My Way" when Sinatra's wouldn't clear. Lennie Kravitz ruins one otherwise decent track. Even Jay himself felt the need to boil it down to one disc after the fact. But the tracks you don't know will certainly improve your memory. Try Just Blaze "and the Blazettes'" amazing "Hovi Baby," built around stutter-step electro synths in 5/4 time(!) or the Big Boi-augmented Dirty South nod "Poppin' Tags." B

The Black Album (2003) - You think he would've learned his lesson but Jay went even more epic after people didn't take Blueprint 2 seriously. Here he threatens to quit and looks back on his life with better results than the last album, even though the uninspired half turns out to be unforgivably lazy. Half the masterpiece everyone thinks it all is. When he's on, he cranks out "99 Problems," my nomination for Song of the Decade, which rocks harder than most rock, slams harder than most hiphop, and rhymes smarter and funnier than either. The Kanye-assisted "Lucifer," sexy "My 1st Song," creeping "Moment of Clarity," anthemic "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" and even the showoffy "What More Can I Say?" and "Encore" could pass for a great album if they weren't weighed down by a handful of not just filler, but some of Jay's worst tracks ever. "Justify My Thug" samples an awful Madonna song for a worse Jay-Z one, "Change Clothes" is tied with "Excuse Me Miss" as his worst Pharrell contribution ever, and the cringe-worthy "December 4th" is Jay irritatingly wallowing in his own legend. Portends Kingdom Come more than we thought in retrospect, with some truly lazy rhymes. How anyone could've thought this a complete epitaph is beyond me, no wonder he came back. B+

Kingdom Come (2006) - As I've said before, pretty much worthless, even though it fits into Jay's grand personality scheme as some kind of triumphant reborn Superman bullshit. He's made songs this bad before, but never so many in one place. This is one of those records like Hootie And The Blowfish's Fairweather Johnson or Sarah Mclachlan's Mirrorball that did huge on Billboard just by the coattails of the artist's clout, with barely a speck of self-consciousness to relieve the banal, or even a real hit to justify the ubiquity. Both of those artists subsequently sank for good after that last gasp of sales, and I hope Jay gets a second chance after everyone who bought this realizes how duped they were. His punishment will be the miniscule sales to follow for that real comeback album. C

I didn't count the R. Kelly partner-ups or the Linkin Park pseudo-mashup because they barely repaid my attention once. They're mediocre and harmless, legitimately tossed-off and treated as such by Jay himself. Kingdom Come is only offensive because of the great weight placed on it, and because Jay himself seems to take it seriously, as he was right to do since it's making money. Maybe I'll find a couple more likable tracks in retrospect. Or maybe he'll stay in the boardroom.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

you're obviously on crack - cocaine

5:03 AM, August 27, 2007  
Blogger kiss out the jams said...

Boo hoo, one person doesn't think Reasonable Doubt and Black Album are his indisputable works of genius. I bet you're an Achtung Baby fan, too.

5:12 AM, August 27, 2007  

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