Saturday, September 12, 2009
#3 Album of the Decade- Jay-Z- The Blueprint (2001)
Jay-Z- "U Don't Know"
#27 Album of the Decade- Jay-Z- The Black Album (2003)
Jay-Z- "Public Service Announcement"
Except for maybe Frank Sinatra, no musician seizes greatness without having that greatness brought out by collaborators.
Mick Jagger, who wrote all of the Rolling Stones' lyrics, depended upon Keith Richards to write the music, and the two are still butting heads and playing mind games with each other over their interdependence. During the Exile on Main Street recordings, which were done at Richards' French villa, he would shoot up until three in the morning, and everyone else had to wait on hand-and-foot because he would eventually come downstairs with something like "Tumbling Dice." At the same time, it's clear who the star of the group is.
Michael Jackson was a kid with a good resume until he met Quincy Jones, the man responsible for extracting everything mysterious and captivating and grown-up about him, crafting the universal sum of mismatched parts.
John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote some of the best pop songs ever because they combined such contradictory focuses. McCartney, as a bass player, was obsessed with rhythm, while Lennon always kept the melodies paramount. Lennon was always writing lyrics from a personal standpoint while McCartney was trying to communicate the universal. And sometimes that cocktail would show up in the same song: [Lennon-sounding] "Eleanor Rigby picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been/Lives in a dream/Waits at the window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door/Who is it for?/[McCartney-sounding] All the lonely people/Where do they all come from?/All the lonely people/Where do they all belong?"
By the late '90s mainstream hip-hop had forgotten this, if it was ever aware of it in the first place. There were solo acts who stayed in their own regressive lane, never expanding beyond their comfort zone (DMX). And there were rappers who used collaboration as a lazy crutch, blending into a group and shuffling off the heavy lifting (Master P). What Jay-Z seemed to realize with The Blueprint (and then forget again with The Blueprint 2) and exhibit again with The Black Album, was that he was only as good as the people working with him. For the first time, instead of putting on negligible friends as favors ([cough-cough] all of The Dynasty: Roc La Familia), he challenged himself to reach new heights, and those heights were stoked by the bright talents of hungry newcomers Kanye West, Bink, Just Blaze, the Neptunes, and Eminem. The Blueprint and The Black Album are seen as triumphs of the arrogant chest-bump when their real secret is humility.
But there's something else at work here. Most traditionally White music is a continued exploration of who the artist was and will be. For example, Madonna is only relevant because of the contrast between who she is in her current state of reinvention versus who she used to be. The immediacy of Black music comes from the assertion of who the artist is, and no other rapper has ever known that better than Jay. That's what makes him unique. Collaborators who can rival his larger-than-life presence don't bring out unexpected sides of him. They just shine a brighter light on who he is.
He never does this anymore. The "I'm disgusted with you" face is one of my favorites. "Don't be the next contestant on that Summer Jam screen."
On The Blueprint Jay and his producers realized that this was his moment. Embracing a moment makes an album great; intuiting that the man had not already reached his peak, despite staying at the top for fifteen years and selling millions of albums, is what makes an album special. The Blueprint is commonly referred to as a cigar-chomping, indolent victory lap. That's partly true, but it discounts a lot of the circumstances under which it was released. Yes, it came out on September 11, 2001, but more important to the text itself is the fact that Jay had a third-degree assault rap hanging over his head the whole time he was recording. Yes, the middle-aged dude who has Barry Obama on his speed-dial (or whatever Jay uses that's more expensive than speed-dial) also probably stabbed a guy less than a decade ago. Anyway, rather than creating a portentuous, grave collection of meditative songs, Jay instead boasted stuff like, "Cops wanna knock me, D.A. wanna box me in/But somehow, I beat them charges like Rocky." Or maybe "charges don't stick to dude/He's like Teflon." Rather than seeming vulnerable, Jay just made himself bigger, more dangerous, more untouchable. Bragging about beating assault charges before you actually beat them is one of the more hip-hop things ever. He has nothing to lose even though he has everything to lose. Again, Jay knows himself well enough to see that the cocky, assured guy who doesn't seem to care always comes off as more powerful than the guy who obviously does care. (See Bush, George W. versus Gore, Al, 2o00.)
It's a bit unfair to compare Jay's records to anyone else's during this period in rap because he was simply working with a bigger canvas. Just as Spielberg makes great films because he can have any script he wants and get any financing he wants, Jay's all-encompassing fame and charisma draw the resources that separate him from the rest of the pack. "Yeah, Guru, throw in that Gladiator sample." Why not? The fact that no one else can even afford to clear samples anymore, let alone have great ones, gives him a leg up no homo. (Or "pause," as he pretty much invented on "Never Change.")
"This column's all over the place, nephew. And yeah, I do endorse HP. Don't give a fuck. You just finished writing about that."
That production, ranging from the menacing throb of The Doors on "Takeover" to the irrefutable poise of Bobby Bland on "Heart of the City," is the hallmark of the album, and it kind of threw hip-hop into a repetitive hole for the next few years. With the trend it started though, you forget how powerful the samples are in this context. While they are supposed to recall the records playing in the ether of Jay's childhood--literally, the blueprint of his musical taste--they're updated with an unmistakably contemporary vitality. That sound's immediacy, as well as some of the samples' almost purposeful imperfection, reminds you that the bulk of the record was written and recorded in two days.
But if The Blueprint is powered by the threat that Jay will never stop, The Black Album is powered by the uneasy promise that he will. It's there that he takes his time and money and crafts what amounts to way more of a competent personal statement than we could have expected.
Rather than mixing the hard-core with the commercial as he did on The Blueprint, Jay trades the personal with the universal on his fourth masterpiece. (It's no coincidence that he compares himself to The Beatles on it.) For example, Rick Rubin's kinetic monster of a beat on "99 Problems" is bombastic enough to open Tony Scott flicks, but if you examine the lyrics, it's just a sarcastic retelling of something that happened to Jay in his twenties. This is an intimate and sometimes bitter reflection hidden inside of candy wrappers. (Again, he couldn't have reached this balance without a stable of musicians just as talented as he is.) It's so autumnal, in fact, that I can remember walking around my mom's neighborhood for an hour, listening to this over the crunch of my heavy feet on leaves. I ignored my phone because I didn't want to interrupt the man, and I circled the same blocks watching my own breath until he was finished.
Clearly, this is grown man's music, but it's rarely stodgy. (Only on "Change Clothes," which still sucks.) Jay isn't content to water down the lyrics just because he can get by on the rich content of the songs. On the contrary, some of these verses present lyrics as twisty and clever as anything on Reasonable Doubt. An offering like, "I was conceived by Gloria Carter and Adnes Reeves, who made love under the sycamore tree/Which makes me a more sicker MC, and my mama would claim/At ten pounds when I was born I didn't give her no pain" isn't a return to form: it's a reinvention of form. The internal rhyme and caesura are technically perfect, but this whole image of a baby being conceived among nature and then born under atypical circumstances is myth-making of the classical variety. If it didn't happen in Brooklyn, it could have happened in Ancient Greece. Other rappers say they're special; Jay-Z makes you believe it.
Jay's contributions to hip-hop haven't been completely positive. For example, his insistence that he doesn't write rhymes down in advance has reinforced the belief that rap music is one of only spontaneity and born-that-way genius. Ironically then, his best work is reflective and emblematic of hard work. On these albums he takes a step back and evaluates his own place in history, which makes them historically great. The Blueprint is an epic proclamation of its own importance. The Black Album stands as a polished, penetrating threat that he can take it all away. But the element tying them together is that he and his collaborators pulled out all the stops, and, unlike the workman-like quality of hip-hop at the time, they treated the work as an opportunity they might never have again.