I remember in 9th grade being given my mom's boyfriend's copy of In My Lifetime Vol. 1 because I kept borrowing it (and around the same time my aunt telling me she was going to give me her copy of Hard Knock Life but there was too much cursing and etc. Feh. I guess she meant well, in a clueless way). I soaked up every piece of that album, and to this day it's one of five Jay records I'd say are good (that and The Black Album, Hard Knock Life Vol. 2, Reasonable Doubt, and The Blueprint). Even after mistakenly buying Roc La familia only to realize it was an over-produced shit sandwich with only 4 or 5 good songs, I was still a fan. But between 2001 and 2003, I got into a lot of other rappers beyond the mainstream NY stuff that was so huge most of my life. Between then and 11th grade I developed some degree of a critical ear and started paying more attention to what made something great or not and my own changing tastes and listening to difficult or dense albums and finding them more rewarding, etc.
It seemed he could do no wrong, and I remember the battle with Nas and, me having been exposed to Nas during It Was Written and being unaware that Illmatic even existed, went "Who the fuck is Mr. 'You Owe Me' to get at Jay? What the fuck is Stillmatic?" Granted, after buying Illmatic around 2004 after I saw the video for "It Ain't Hard to Tell", and finally hearing "Ether", my view changed a little. But I still maintain Nas is kind of a bum with no vision or talent left and his fans are some of the most clueless assholes, next to 2Pac fans or people who praise Common for being "different". Despite being a homophobic racist with gayface, awful rhymes, a labored and annoyingly self-righteous flow, and one half-decent album.
But the guy fell off substantially, and everyone felt it, when he released Blueprint 2. He now says he made The Black Album because he was just putting out record to put out records, and it showed. I remember being aghast at seeing him on stage with Lenny Kravitz during SNL and doing "Guns and Roses", his shitty attempt at a rap/rock song for some crossover appeal and edge, and to display that, you know, he enjoys Coldplay and Lenny Kravitz. Remember his MTV Diary from 2000 when he was singing along to Z100 as it played Nine Days' "Story of a Girl"? Yeah. That's Jay's taste in music outside of rap. I wish I could say that wasn't the norm with most rappers (Ghostface once sang "Numb" to Mike Shinoda during the Projekt Revolution MTV2 tour special. Motherfucking "Numb".) So, with my weird sixth sense about these sorts of things in the ether (lolz), I knew the record was going to brick. I remember being in Bravo supermarkets buying something for my mom and thinking "Man...Jay finally fell off" as "Excuse me Miss" was playing. (Good song, but still)
The final straws, despite having casual enough interest to buy and be slightly disappointed by The Black Album, despite being very good, were "La La La", his shittastic contribution to the Bad Boys II soundtrack, and that goddamned corporate sponsored mash-up album with Linkin Park.
Let me get this out there right now: Mash-ups suck. It sucks when Girltalk does it, it sucked when it was a Limewire internet fad, and it sucked when MTV tried to salvage some degree of cool and cherry pick a bullshit trend to promote. Mash-ups are lazy and only cool to people who love pop radio and think it'd be "So totally random to mix Maroon 5 with 50 Cent". I don't believe in judging a person by their interest, because that's shallow and transgressive, but when I see people who own or bring up that CD, I make a mental note to not feel any empathy when tragedy befalls them.
"You got robbed and your girlfriend of two years that you just reconciled with was sodomized in front of you to the song "Numb/Encore"? That's too bad...maybe they were after that Collision Course CD? To think, had you never bought it, you'd have your stuff, and your girlfriend wouldn't be able to fit an Xbox in what used to be her ass"
So despite numerous interviews and persistent rumors and him being on stage with fucking Phish, I thought "Nah, he's not coming back, he's smarter than that".
Then, in a roundtable discussion in 2005 for MTV, where I learned to hate David Banner for being a homophobic Baptist idiot with no perspective or insight to go with his years of college education, Remy Ma said something along the lines of "Nah, that's garbage. He's a rapper, and he feels the same passions he always felt. And he's not gonn a be able to stay away"*
*Badly paraphrased from memory.
At the time I dismissed that pretty accurate appraisal of the situation, because it seemed like a lot of people there were just hating. Jim Jones, who was the only reason I watched the special at the time because I was obsessed with the Dips and all their singles that year, spent his time shitting on Jay's (very real) inability to be a good president at Def Jam. But she was right. And the effect his absence caused was fascinating. By 2006, there were constant rumors of a comeback, he was doing guest verses for Beyonce and Memphis "Cappadonna Jr." Bleek, and a shit storm arrived when word of Kingdom Come got leaked by the record's producers in the summer. The response was hilarious, as just about every rapper, and myself, went "Fuck that nigga", after hearing about the concept. And surprise, the record was an epic shit sandwich of Roc La Familia proportions in a 2006 full of great albums (as opposed to 2007, which is the worst year for music I can remember living through).
I, after being so underwhelmed lyrically by "Show Me What You Got", decided to pirate that over-produced abortion, and in the process of me listening to it and hoping it would grow on me like some of my favorite dense or complex records, I realized what was left of my Jay-Z fandom was deader than Superman after Doomsday came and bodied half of Metropolis. Naturally, casual rap fans, desperate Jay stans, and the hordes of shallow faux-80's, glamor-fapping, vapid, party-obsessed Myspace trendwhores that make up most of the 12-22 year-olds in this country thought it was great. And, that was probably who the record was made for in the first place, judging by how it was essentially a Beyonce record. (Had Beyonce used all of the tracks for herself, it might've been hot). Unsurprisingly, it sold very well. (Oh, and interesting fact, Jay, despite his hugeness, never rarely sells past double platinum. Now, that's a lot of records, especially, now, but keep in mind, this is the supposed best rapper alive. DMX's first two records could, financially, body Jay's catalog.)
Getting my grouchy old man on, I had a list of qualms with that album. Or, more realistically, a list of long simmering beefs with Jay as a rapper that, lucky me, now that he came out the gate stumbling, I could spew at his stans. First of all, the guy has been trying to force the concept of him being a grown man (which is redundant, since he's two years younger than Rakim and was 26 when his first record came out, LOLZ) on people for 5 years, which is one of those things that should be shown and not said or, more simply put, if you really were that, you wouldn't have to constantly remind people or announce it. It's an adage of late that developed in reaction to the hordes of impressionable/clone-like black kids who, in their ripe teenage years, kept repeating that they were "Getting their grown man on". Now, usually, they weren't. I don't recall any time where wearing a blazer with your Nike's made you an adult. It makes you a fucktard. So for this, I curse him.
Second, and one of which that plagued me ever since I filled in the blanks last year and downloaded the few Jay records I had never heard, I discovered that for the most part, he wasn't that great of a lyricist. He's a definite B- who can sure destroy any track that's obviously going to be a single, but otherwise, has the same problem as Lupe Fiasco where he confuses a lack of clarity or ability to be concise and not convoluted. Hearing all of the albums that are in my CD collection or the few albums I like but not enough to purchase put that into perspective. There's a quote from a great Stylus piece I had linked to before that summed it up:
Jay-Z isn’t as clever as he thinks he is:Jay maintains a lot of people miss his more complex lyrics and that's why he "dumbed down" (More on that in a second). But truth be told, the best rappers can be lyrical AND memorable just like any writer. But he believes his own hype, as does the world, or at least those that don't follow the other B.R.A.*, Lil' Wayne. The number of lyrical fumbles, as mentioned in that feature, that I've sat through did nothing but to erode at all the self-aggrandizing Jay does.
Jay-Z was the main instigator of the “I have just said something clever” pause in rap. For a while, “Kill at will, solid water, ice cube” was the worst rap lyric ever. J seems to believe that the punning wit inherent in this line was so great that it required a slight breather whilst the listening public revelled in the genius of his, quite frankly, sub-Richard Whitely wordplay. Of course, Jay-Z has now retired and the baton has been passed in so many ways to Kanye West. If anyone out there can listen to, say, “Trying to be a millionaire I used two lifelines”, or the low-point of 800 years of the English language: “Story on MTV/ But I ain’t trying to make a band”, and the ensuing raised eyebrows that follows them, without wanting to kill, indeed, at will, please tell me how.
*BEST RAPPER ALIVE (Please save the Baby!)
So did his feeble attempts at putting on BAPE hoodies and acting the way he thinks Chris Brown fans would think is cool during his 106&Park performance (one of two times I've watched that show in 5 years...other time was the Kanye/50 appearance) made him just look sad. He would later dispel logical assertions that Kingdom Come was a 4th quarter cash-in to make his president run at Def jam seem successful and say the album was "rushed", but let's call a spade a spade. The guy only "stopped rapping" for two years. If you're really that good, your quality level shouldn't fall off that much. And if your return was triumphant, why rush the product? An album a year is great, but not when you only spent a few weeks of that year on it.
The biggest beef I've had with the guy came from my actual excitement for that album. On The Black Album he had said “Honestly I wanna rhyme like Common Sense (but I did 5 mil)/I ain’t been rhymin’ like Common since” as well as some shit about dumbing down to double his dollars. At the time, I was like "Wow, I didn't know that", then "If he comes back, maybe he'll actually be better and more like Mos Def or any other more concise, more lyrical MC? Or at the very least get some balls and do more than briefly mention something political and wax a whole song about it!"* 17 year-olds have a lot of hope.
*Paraphrased a bit
I even thought that it'd be cool if he restarted his career, comic book style, with a new name and attitude, and just went by Sean Carter or something. And then there could be a Sean C/Sean P duet album! Nah, B. He was exactly the same, but worse, and it became clear that he was brilliant at marketing. He was good enough of a rapper that he could make all these fictitious claims that he's a whole lot better than he actually is, sort of like "The Big Lie". Good businessman, sure. Great MC, yes. But, like Lil' Wayne, his spotlight is due to diminishing returns. Biggie was dead and DMX fell off in 2000, so Jay was all alone to bask in the success of his four albums and mythologize. Similarly, since most rap is crappy or boring of late, Lil' Wayne can get obscene amounts of attention for being great at everything except, you know, lyrics.
So after re-assessing Jay in the last two years following countless viewings of "Fade to Black", and completely losing faith in his ability to make good musical product, he announces the American Gangster album. And I sat there reading the news blurb on this very laptop, completely apathetic. When my friend Anthony was excited on the day of its release to download it and got annoyed when it became known that he pulled it off for completely pretentious and suspect reasons (Jay can't be that dumb to not know it IS possible to make tracks "Album only" and force people to buy whole albums on iTunes), I just added it to a list of fan annoyances, a la Mos Def. I don't download leaks of artists I like for weird moral reasons, but when the record leaked a week before its release, it was just that I couldn't care less. "Blue Magic" is cool-sounding, but just as ultimately anemic and forgettable as most post-N.E.R.D. Neptunes tracks. "Roc Boys" grew on me and I pirated the record, and decided to be objective and give it more attention than the other 11 gigs of stuff I've recently downloaded and listened to it exclusively.
Overall? It's good. It's not great, it's a failure as a "concept record", but it's not bad by any means. It's overproduced, too light sonically, and still has some disposable tracks and awful lines ("I'm more Frank Lucas than Ludacris/And Luda's my dude, no offense") But to nerd it up, a track by track breakdown-
"Intro"- Some quotable lines toward the end about swagger being immaterial and a front, but kind of crappy. Badly cast voices.For once, I agree with Tom Breihan about something. He gave the record its solid 8.6 Pitchfork rating, which is astute. It's a really good record in a year of shit, but I still put it behind Underground Kingz and Graduation in terms of the year's hip-hop releases. And 8.6 is basically a B, which is what the album is. I'm happy that Jay is returning to form, but it still falls too short for me to be interested in buying the album or overlooking my beefs with the records first half.
"Pray"- Beyonce just reminds me of Storm from the X-Men on this for some reason. The rhymes are really on point, but, like most of the production, comes across way too clear (in a bell sense, like natural harmonics) and cheesy-sounding. The strings sound shitty.
"American Dreamin'"- Could take or leave it. It's rare that on a Jay-Z record, my beef is with the production, and not the rhymes. Lyrically, is again on point here
"Hello Brooklyn 2.0"- Decent. At first it stand out the most and seems sort of cool and weird, but eventually it becomes a Lil' Wayne version of "Snoopy Track". Also, more ammo to throw at Lil' Wayne dickriders on the internet, streets, and Pitchfork Media: He completely gets bodied on a huge major label album again. Getting shat on lyrically by 2007-era Kanye West is bad enough, but it was kind of important for him not to eat it on this song. Oh well, time to release another mixtape and get a 9.8 rating.
"No Hook"- Lame. And also, Murphy Lee did this song a lot better back in 2004 with "What the Hook Gon' Be?". Jay fails at being clever (as usual) by turning the absence of a hook...INTO A HOOK! OMFG. Issue is, Jay hasn't made a decent hook since 2003. LOL.
"Roc Boys (And The Winner Is..."- Awesome. Outro lingers way too long, but meh. He's indefatigable on this shit.
"Sweet"- Pretty good. Although, unfortunately, suffers from the same fate as a lot of tracks here, where everything sounds like the opening track of a record. Intro songs are usually great for that purpose, introducing the record or concept or establishing the feel or making some sort of explosion to be followed up, but usually not that great by themselves most of the songs here feel like that. Good mid-album track, though.
"I Know"- Jay, like Common and a bunch of other MC's who rap about crack or New Age bullshit, suck at talking about sex. I can't help but shudder in revulsion when he whisper raps "I'm your addiction!" It always either comes across gross or falls flat. Ghostface and Mos Def are some of a few exceptions. Plus, this would've made a better Kanye record. Note to Jay-Z: Avoid the Neptunes. They haven't done anything good for you since 2002. And Pharell is a douche bag of Fiascogate proportions.
"Party Life"- A lot of rappers would sound better on this track than Jay, but I like it for two reasons. The beat is great, and I take weird pleasure in hearing Jay rap like Juicy J. Seriously, EXACTLY LIKE JUICY J. Awesome. The south wins.
"Ignorant Shit"- Disgusting. Ridiculous. One of two tracks on this album that I'd add to my 70 or 80 song-long "Jay-Z's greatest hits" iTunes playlist. This is the "smart, complex" Jay-Z he alleges he dumbs himself down from. Personally, Jay's best moments are when he displays that he does actually have sharp wit and a vicious side. Problem is, he rarely uses it. Only flaw is the incredibly awkward third verse tagged on. Oh, and Beans bodies Jay in like 8 lines, Wu-Tang style. "Tell a trick get these nuts/Eat dick like food". COME ON. Sigel wins. And what's with Jay's weird enunciation of "I miss the days when it wasn't about Imus"? And way to stray from your album's concept.
"Say Hello"- A great beat ruined by a wack hook and extraneous studio adlibs. Seriously. What do I have to do to get a Berry Gordy-esque quality control job for major label rappers? I know what I'm talking about, B. Hire me, I'll steer you towards a classic album. Yentas.
"Success"- AKA "Black Republican II" AKA "Dead Presidents IV (Live)". Classic all the way through. The most ridiculous brag-rap track I've heard in a long time. "Google Earth Nas/I got flats in other continents". Nas wins. Plus, his voice sounds great on the track. Here's hoping Nas can learn to pick beats before he gets as old as Jay is.
"Fallin'"- I feel like a lot of people will put this on mixtapes and rap over it. I'm for that. It's a good track. The hook is solid, and the beat is great, no qualms.
"Blue Magic"- More interesting than good. But still, really fucking cool track. I gave the Neptunes a lot of credit for stating in 2003 or so that they were going to make their productions a lot weirder and eschew standard song format. And they did. The Nelly and Snoop tracks they had released as singles were fucking odd, though the former was pretty shitty. Putting this as a bonus track and not an immediate part of his failed concept was a great move, because it doesn't fit at all. And Pharell's falsetto on the hook is pretty dead-on, rather than embarrassing, for a change.
"American Gangster"- Crazy beat, really busy in that Just Blaze way. (Just Blaze:Rap beats::Cryptopsy:Death metal).
Then again, what other 38-year-olds can get their shit together and make heyday quality albums like this*?
*Answer? Jonathan Richman, who is pushing 60.
Chris has, including American Gangster, 6 hours (or 91 songs) worth of Jay-Z on his iTunes. Srsly.