By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
The Black Album
Back when George Michael and Terence Trent D'Arby were the new Princes, hip hop was the new jazz. It was '88 when I first caught wind of this idea (from Harry Allen, Steve Coleman, and Stetsasonic, later from Gang Starr and the Native Tongues), and as a teenager recently converted to both forms, the analogy taught me a lot: that the emcee battle was the new cutting session, that the "Funky Drummer" break was as fertile as the chord changes from "I Got Rhythm," that there was an alternate version of jazz aesthetics that valued the solo work of Lonnie Liston Smith and Roy Ayers.
Up to that time, I figured hip hop jibed with the music-is-for-everyone ideas I'd picked up from punk rock. Rapping over an old record instead of singing over a band was a an act of radical democracy, after all, and it seemed to run counter to chops-based hierarchy in a way akin to Johnny Ramone's longtime aversion to solos. But that wasn't quite right, since hip hop, being the new jazz, valued technical proficiency to an extent that the Ramones and the Undertones (though not Television, Minutemen, and hundreds of others, but that's a different story) didn't.
Which is cool; I'm in favor of technical proficiency of the type exhibited by Charlie Parker, Greg Louganis, Rakim, or Jay-Z, the latter of whom I promise to get to in a sec. But as everybody knows, virtuosity is no certain path to greatness. It can create all kinds of pitfalls and monsters, which, just for fun, let's divide into categories, beginning with 1) The Tasteless Maestro. According to standard critical cant, this lowliest of groups would include folks like Celine Dion and Yngwie Malmsteen. Standard critical cant has steered me clear of those two so I'll withhold absolute judgment, though I've heard enough to know that both are 2) Showboats. Ostentation, of course, is the fatal flaw of many prodigious players and singers, including sometimes-okay ones such as Mariah Carey and great ones such as Art Tatum. Johnny Mathis has been known to hold a note longer than artistically necessary, but he fits better among the 3) Great Talents Frequently Burdened with Lousy Material, a victimized bunch that sometimes bleeds into 4) Savants Who've Betrayed Their Talent, and my brazenly subjective list of 5) Really Good Musicians Who Bore the Shit out of Me.
Jay-Z--when he wants to be and in the estimation of legion hip-hop aficionados including Jay-Z--is a virtuoso. If evidence or reminders are needed, listen to the latticed wordplay on "Can I Live," the sangfroid flow and cagey introspection of "D'Evils," the immune-to-twisting tongue unleashed on "Nigga What, Nigga Who," the excoriating wit of "Takeover."
I'll give you some time to do all that.
Still, he's also wandered into a number of the dubious virtuoso camps limned above--by issuing his umpteenth luxury-car testimonial or reiteration of his fatherless-adolescent-becomes-drug-hustler-becomes-rap-hustler saga (group 5), by rhyming over a Glenn Frey melody (1, 3), by waxing inane or sexist about all the girls, girls, girls he's loved (or something) before (1, 4, 5), by over-recording and under-performing (5). The thing is, Jay-Z knows all this. He says on The Black Album (Roc-A-Fella), allegedly his farewell recording and framed like a retirement speech, that he has "dumbed down" to "double his dollars," and that he'd rather "rhyme like Common Sense" but only in a world where "skills sold."
These confessions come from a typically self-aware and delusional verse from the Eminem-produced "Moment of Clarity," a Black Album highlight on which an inspired Jay-Z defends his concessions to the market as the necessary sacrifices for his inner-city philanthropy (hmm...). It's striking that an artist so concerned with his own legacy should own to being a sellout, even a humanitarian sellout, but Jay-Z the Socially-Conscious Robber Baron is as comfortable with cognitive dissonance as he is adept at making his compromises sound irresistible on the radio.
Resistance, however, is easy when it comes to the first third of Jay-Z's putative swan song. The four opening cuts (minus the intro) cover many of Jay-Z's usual sins: pride, greed, lyrical sloth, use of the word "panties." Worst is "December 4th," on which Stylistics-sampled orchestration lends special pomposity to the stiffly delivered remembrances of the rapper's mom, Gloria Carter, who among other things contends that her labor with 10-pound baby Jigga was painless. I have nothing to say about the veracity of this claim, but its symbolic use on a record by a guy who calls himself Jay-Hova is icky. (Whether or not Mary endured pain during the birth of Christ, by the way, remains a theologically contested question on which the Bible offers no explicit answer.)
In hip hop, of course, bragging isn't just part of the form, it's part of the fun, something I wish there was more of in The Black Album's vaunts. This is humorless vanity--not enough Muhammad Ali, too much David Koresh--and the delusions of grandeur are right out of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
As on The Blueprint's "Takeover," Jay-Z gets funny when he delivers a put-down, such as the one directed at blowhards who "wouldn't bust a grape in a fruit fight." That's from "99 Problems," which borrows from Ice-T and other Great Thinkers of Misogyny, while allowing Rick Rubin to return triumphantly to his Run-D.M.C./Beastie Boys metal-rap template. Kanye West's slinky "Lucifer" and Just Blaze's "Interlude" are similarly rarified productions, with coruscating rhymes to match. Really, the whole latter two-thirds of the album is pretty damn good, and once again I find myself succumbing to a demigod that I'd rather not like. I await the virtuoso's Jordan-like return. I'm crossing my fingers for 2005.