Monday, April 26, 2010

Review of Jay-Z's the Blueprint 3 published on 9/15/2009

What happened to Hip-hop? What was once the most subversive and terrifying music parents feared to find their children listening to is arguably a shell of its former self. First, lyrics – the lifeblood of any hip-hop act – took a back seat to production and danceable grooves. Kanye West, one of the last best hopes in hip-hop, released his last album with Auto-Tune effects on every song. Add to that internet videos of daughters and mothers dancing in unison to “Crank Dat,” a song which the hook advocates ejaculating onto your woman’s back and affixing the bed-sheet like a cape. Yet, when it looks as though hip-hop is about to go the way of the dodo and disco, Jay-Z swoops down to save the genre from itself.

The first single from The Blueprint 3 is “Death of Auto-Tune,” produced – ironically – by Kanye West, who shoulders the bulk of the production work on the record. The song advocates violence and general unruly behavior, but also contains the album’s apparent thesis: “You rappers singing too much/ get back to rap you t-paining too much./I’m a multi-millionaire/ so how is it I’m still the hardest nigga here?” Had one seen Jay-Z last winter hosting concerts in concert with the Obama campaign for voter registration or perhaps as the only guest for a segment of Real Time with Bill Maher, one might think that perhaps Jay has gone mainstream like the Black Eyed Peas. However, one listen to this single and the rest of the album reminds the listener that one of the reasons Jay has been so successful in the past is that rather than cater to a mainstream audience he brings “the suburbs to the hood.” The Blueprint 3 is no different.

The album snags in very few places. Jay-Z has seemingly perfected the formula for a number-one album. There are radio-friendly offerings. The first, “Empire State of Mind” featuring Alica Keys, is the obligatory ode to New York. The lyrics ride aloft on the waves of the beat, punctuated by a powerful chorus. A chorus that you can’t resist trying to sing along with, but will inevitably cause some awkwardness at traffic lights, as Ms. Key’s vocal range is tough to imitate. Especially for a raspy-voiced, white guy, but how else can one sing their own hometown’s name rather than the NYC?

“Run This Town,” features the dulcet tones of Rhianna and some witty rhymes by Kanye. “Forever Young” features artist from Kanye’s label, Mr. Hudson doing his best Sting impersonation. An airy tune that, if not careful, can put into perspective how age is nothing we can avoid and make the listener wonder if he will feel as comfortable at 40 as Jay does.

The battle of the sexes is fought in the tracks Venus vs. Mars, produced by Timbaland – one of his three tracks on the album – and in “On To the Next One,” produced by Swizz Beatz in a song that evokes the mentality of “Big Pimpin’.” There are some songs that seem out of place, but like the last few OutKast albums it takes a few listens before the song seems to fit in your ears. Most notably, “Thank You” seems to be one of the songs. The chorus is a bit repetitive and shrill. The lyrics seem to dance around the beat, almost competing with it. On the third listen, maybe the fourth, the realization occurs that this is completely intentional. In what is maybe the most ironic song on the album, Jay apparently skewers his entire lifestyle. He shoots as many barbs at himself as the rappers he claimed he was going “9/11” had they not done it to themselves.

The two weakest songs are “Real as it Gets,” with Young Jeezy and So Ambitious featuring Pharrell. This is more because of lackluster guests rather than a failing on Jay-Z’s part. Young Jeezy has a unique style, and Jay seems to respect him as an artist, however his verse and work on the chorus leaves much to be desired. As for Pharrell, his sound has really been stagnant for about five years. Pharrell at his worst is better than most in hip-hop at their best, but sonically the song seems like far too familiar territory. In regard to Jay-Z’s contribution to these songs, one almost wonders if he found some forgotten lyrics from 1994. The cadence of Jay’s lyrics on “So Ambitious,” seems to match the cadence of his words on “Feelin’ It” from his classic debut album. The entire album echoes Reasonable Doubt in the way that Jay-Z hoped his concept album, American Gangster, would have.

Jay-Z is one of the few artists who still think of an album as a greater work than a mere collection of songs. The album is constructed to be listened to as an entire work of art and it is in the listening that one can truly appreciate that this is a journey through what remains on the landscape of true hip-hop. By taking the genre to task, as his main rival and contemporary Nas does, it is as if there is hope for those who found hip-hop because of the poetry hidden in the gritty, dark lyrics. No song is filler and there is not one dance instruction in the entire 61 minutes of music. It’s not hip-hop for grown-ups, but more like grown-up hip-hop.

Where’s Woody Guthrie’s Guitar?


One of my best friends constantly extols the climatic virtues of the great state of Arizona. Conspiracy theorists have warned of an approaching fascism from underneath tinfoil hats for decades and the tea party movement has taken up that mantle, complete with outlandish costumes, a creepy affection for guns, and nonsensical rallying cries (e.g. "Keep Your Government Hands Off My Medicare," pictures of Obama as Hitler with a hammer & sickle underneath, et. al.). That longtime Republican (Non?)-Maverick John McCain is facing a tough primary challenge and the passage of two laws makes Arizona a veritable Tea Party Mecca.

At first the laws that are making the most news appear dissimilar. One is an amendment to Arizona State Senate Bill 1024 requiring that Presidential candidates submit an affidavit to the Arizona Secretary of State proving their citizenship and their age. If the office of the Secretary of State, has reason to doubt that information they can refuse to allow the candidate's name on the ballot. The other controversial law is a measure that allows local law enforcement to ask for proof of citizenship for those they suspect may be here illegally. Yet, at the heart of both of these bills I find very similar ideas specifically that both laws seem a bit, well, fascist.

The problem is, thanks to our friends in the tinfoil and tri-corner hats, when one even mentions fascism at all, eyes begin to roll and immediately the subject of conversation will change to sports, beer, or boobs. And I am talking about my female friends as well! Still as Seth Meyers asked on SNL, "Can we all agree that there is nothing more 'Nazi' than saying 'Show me your papers?'" The Tea Party claims to be all but literally "up in arms" to prevent the eroding of personal liberty and freedom. However, somehow those terms only seem to apply to money and not to actual freedom. Sure, white folks really don't have to worry. Any illegal immigrants from the former-soviet bloc will still probably be able to walk around Arizona freely shirking taxes and taking jobs away from documented citizens. However, if you happen to be of a more non-lily-white variety, you may have to present your identification if you happen to linger too long outside of a Home Depot or if you happen to be doing yardwork at your own house. I am not sure if this is the exact criteria they will use, or if they'll word it all fancy-like.

Sherriff Joe Arpaio can barely contain his power-boner and promises to immediately use it to fuck Mexicans. A warthog in a campaign hat, Sherriff Joe is the type of full-speed-ahead-damn-the-torpedoes lunatic that can genuinely amass an incredible amount of power, climbing the backs of the brown and the poor, and his sights are currently set on the Governor's mansion. He has a fistful of complaints, lawsuits, and alleged abuses to his name, but in his country sheriff costume with big, scary inmates wearing pink underwear and living in tents, a certain section of the Arizona population is very comforted knowing he is fighting the "good fight." With some clever lawyers, the investigations into his misdeeds are moving at a stoned snail's pace. In the meantime, Sherriff Joe could achieve his ultimate goal, be it the Governorship or perhaps he just wants to eventually own a person.

If liberty and freedom are important to these Tea Bagger folks, why are they so willing to allow the government to infringe upon the rights of the citizens that would most likely be profiled? It's easy to just dismiss them as racists, but I would wager that they are more like Orwell's loyal sheep, echoing the arguments of those who yell the loudest. "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." Selah.

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