Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Unbearable Lightness of being Jay-Z

Since nobody else is talking about this……… Love it or hate it Blueprint 3 is a sign of a career winding down. In its retrospective breadth and themes of maturation, its acknowledgement of a baton passing in the form of its guest list and “D.O.A.”s raging against the dying light this album bears all the marks of a last gasp. At the very least we are getting dangerously close to the end of “relevant” Jay-Z. This could very well be his I Got Next. True fans have recently been spending a lot of time head scratching, attempting to articulate what has changed in the music from an artist many of us know and love. But are these recent disappointments the product of time, decision making or the recognition of a larger underlying problem that has shadowed Carter’s music from day 1?

The obvious critical issue is a sudden lackadaisical quality to the verses Jay is releasing as a guest or on his own shit. A Jay-Z verse was once an event, kind of like Kanye verses have been for the bulk of 2009, a sure fire sign we were going to come away with some insight, a controversial opinion or two and some scorching punchlines. Speaking of punchlines, where have they gone? Noz recently suggested that over the course of his career Jay’s worth has been measured in singles. While I agree it’s been intrinsic to his popular success, the reason Jay has achieved and maintained his level of success within Hip Hop while conquering the world, what kept us coming back, what he’s been able to retain his street cred with for a decade, is his punchlines. Jay-Z proved over an 8 album span to be one of the greatest technical “writers” Hip Hop has ever seen. In his extended metaphors, the device Jay-Z once wielded lethally and practically introduced to Hip Hop, he has been one of our most nimble, clever wordsmiths regardless of subject matter. For all the people who claim to love “D.O.A.” or “Jockin Jay-Z” beyond their stellar beats indulge me in a brief experiment. Close your eyes and spit, oh let’s say four bars of either song aloud right now without Googling. Even better, what was one great, memorable punchline, off the top of your head? Okay? Now spit “P.S.A.” from beginning to end. It may not be Auto-tune rap but it certainly bears the marks of Auto-cruise.

To Jeff Weiss the other factor most attributable to his decline is a perceived identity crisis. He believes Jay’s open courting of the Williamsburg set is affecting the slant of his music. Not sure if content is the issue, after all he raps about rapping as well as maturing on The Black Album. Perhaps it's more to do with the way in which said content is being delivered. It’s understandable for a veteran artist to be in Jay’s position, somewhat bored with his medium and restless to mix things up. The "solution" to this problem we’ve seen from three respected old timers this year (Jay, Eminem and Fabolous) has been an affected, accented, forced-melodic flow that has resulted in uncomfortable failure each time. We're all familiar with Jay’s origin story, fast rapping under Jaz-O before finding himself and delivering his olive oil register in enunciated, conversational speech. Why he believes emulating Rick Ross, Lil Wayne or Drake with his obnoxious, breathy approach will somehow revitalize the formula that catapulted him into rap’s stratosphere is beyond me. Or maybe it isn’t. The cacophony of awful hooks and general desperate theme of self congratulation (laurel resting) that plague BP3 seem to suggest a lack in confidence suffered after Kingdom Come’s brick, American Gangster’s correctly diagnosed safety and the overwhelming pressure he must have felt to deliver a classic here, evidenced in his decision to revive the Blueprint brand.

So without the technical weaponry he’s packed his entire career, it’s now possible for us to inspect the man as an artist in terms of substance as opposed to style and get to the root of a problem that’s bugged me from Hov's not so humble beginnings. A painful truth, a problem that has sunk his last three efforts that stans are understandably tip toeing around.

For me more so than other people Kingdom Come was a success because for once it felt like Jay making music he wanted to make. He spent much of The Black Album apologizing for his career and screaming pragmatism, it begged the question “so what would you do without popular pressure/restraint?” To his credit he gave us an answer, but he sadly exposed himself as a typical rich and famous person who isn’t that interesting and even then gave us, to turn a great punchline from TBA, his idea of what a Common Sense album sounds like. It’s all shallow depth.

American Gangster was a “return to form” after the Kingdom Come backlash, the thin pretense of 70s era cokesploitation for Jay-Z to go back to making Jay-Z records. Only his own concept seemingly hamstrung him. Frank Lucas put up a wall between Jay and the hustling protagonist who’s footsteps he had swaggered a mile in so effortlessly before. AG is impressionistic. Jay unable to realize a concept album about selling coke was what he’d faithfully churned out his entire career.

As a crack rapper Shawn Carter showed us the glorified, consummate hustler from a distance, the hustler’s ideal. We never see the low level dealer struggling to sustain solvency (at least not from his perspective, they buzz around ineffectually beneath him), having been beat with a brick of crushed aspirin, having a gun pressed to his temple, taking life’s inevitable L’s in any form. From day one he’s faced a Charles Foster/Big Daddy Kane like inability to plumb the depths, to be honest and occasionally sad (even when sad he did what he had to do, no mistakes). Jay-Z is the always composed, righteous, successful and above all other things cool and controlled operator. He shows no emotion or affection, has no doubts, vulnerabilities or moments of weakness. He spent his career emulating his forerunner Biggie Smalls, unable to see that what made us all love the late G.O.A.T. so much was his ability to acknowledge some nights he looks in the mirror and sees a piece of shit.

“Song Cry” on Blueprint is his career persona in a nutshell. We never get to see the tears coming down his eyes. What we have is a strong writer who either lacks or is unwilling to share a depth of understanding in regards to the human condition, the reason why we’re bored when he moves away from the pulp buried in verbal mastery, he’s a stylist, a rap Tarantino. Post Reasonable Doubt Jay-Z was at his best, truly himself on songs like “Who you Wit 2” or “Girls, Girls, Girls”, songs with lively beats he rode confidently as he shot written fireworks into space crafted by the best producers money could buy. It moves, it’s entertaining and above all other things fun.

I’ve been a Knicks fan my whole life and something that gave me reason to believe the universe operates under some bizarre logic is I had the privilege of living near D.C. when Michael Jordan decided to end his career with, of all teams, the Wizards. I used to spend Spring evenings sitting in the stands at the MCI Center quietly with a warm smile on my face as the person Jay associates himself with the most outside Biggie, perhaps the person as well as the persona he's most closely resembled, stumbled in his professional winter, the place Cam’ron memorably accused Jay of being at in his career on Young Joc’s “It’s Goin Down (Remix)”. The crowd who had worshiped him without question season after season turned over the course of the year one by one as he launched double teamed fadeaway threes, just off the mark time and time again while The Wiz sunk into mediocrity. Little kids wearing his cobalt blue jersey would stand up in incredulous disbelief screaming “JESUS! HUGHES IS OPEN!” Maybe it’s time to pass the rock.


tray said...

This is all largely true, but you will recall that he did do a fair amount of songs about his absent father, dead friends, loving mother, etc., throughout his career. Though I would agree that all of that stuff, though occasionally touching, isn't essential Jay or what he's really about.

Abe Beame said...

I take great care to mention songs like those in his catalog are tossed off, bones tossed and even then never really touch something deep, meaningful or under the Jay Hov veneer.

tray said...

There are those who really love his verse on "Still Got Love For You" (on The Reason). But yeah, I agree. Why is it, though, that both you and I see this as a major flaw in Jay's body of work, or Kane's, whereas I suspect you wouldn't make the same complaint about Rakim - even though the same could be said? What makes the R seem much deeper and Jay ultimately so shallow?

Abe Beame said...

Nah that's a totally fair question I considered when I wrote the Kane comparison. I think it's a question of the era, the level of "competition", the accolades bestowed on the individual. Rakim was definitely a stylistic innovator who revolutionized punchlines but I couldn't imagine anyone talking about him using the same superlatives Jay was being graced with daily between The Blueprint and The Black Album. Jay came after guys like Biggie, Nas and Pac, compared himself to them constantly often giving himself the edge, therefore in my mind is subject to the same critical standards. In my mind in a G.O.A.T. convo a guy like Rakim or LL or Kane could still potentially get a higher birth than Jay based on the moment in which they contributed their significant work. If we're beginning with the assumption all practitioners are equal you could compare some shmuck physicist today to Einstein claiming he's covered just as much if not more ground. Ya dig?

tray said...

"Rakim was definitely a stylistic innovator who revolutionized punchlines but I couldn't imagine anyone talking about him using the same superlatives Jay was being graced with daily between The Blueprint and The Black Album."

Really? I've always felt and thought others felt that Ra on stuff like 'Eric B For President' or 'Follow The Leader' is just flat-out godly. I never listen to Jay and get quite that feeling.

Abe Beame said...

Sigh, in terms of previously unseen clever turns of phrase and sick metaphor absolutely godly. In the terms we're discussing Jay, the versatile, five tool GOAT who can seemingly do anything without a pen, not so much. Not saying those are your words but at the peak of his fame and success that was the level of shit said about Jay. Not sure how many people would call the God, a personal favorite of mine, a particularly versatile MC even with the Mahoganys and What's on your Minds

tray said...

I guess I don't care about versatility. Fritz Lang, for instance, spent the twenties and thirties making the same movie over and over, didn't give a shit about character, acting, or anything that works on a gut human level, but nevertheless, when you watch his early shit you do say to yourself (if you have taste), Fritz Lang is God. I feel the same way about Rakim when he goes "now it's out of hand because you told me you hate me." Jay, however many more things he could do than Rakim, never for me reaches such heights of godly self-assurance. Nor can you listen to his shit and hear a guy literally transforming a medium as he raps.