Easy Street Cred?

Jay-Z and Snoop Dogg try to keep their gangsta-rap bona fides

Jay-Z
Kingdom Come
Def Jam

Snoop Dogg
Tha Blue Carpet Treatment
Geffen

Two Tuesdays ago, in New York City, Jay-Z was probably celebrating Kingdom Come's debut at the top of Billboard's album chart by kicking back with a glass of Krug-not-Cristal in his corner office at Def Jam, where the presidential plaque on his door guarantees deferential treatment even when he doesn't sell over half a million CDs inside one week. Across the country, Snoop Dogg was celebrating Tha Blue Carpet Treatment's number-five debut in a slightly different fashion: getting arrested by the Burbank fuzz as he and his homies left NBC Studios after taping an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

Consider the disparity between the two rappers' experiences a sign that rap might currently offer more options to old folks than does rock, which these days demands that its aging artists either record a droopy standards album or form a band with guys who used to be in Stone Temple Pilots. In contrast, hip hop tells its stars they can be whatever they want: CEO, criminal, philosopher, actor, Marxist, idiot—just make the beats hot and we'll roll with you till something hotter comes along.

Jigga sounds reenergized by that concept on Kingdom Come, the album that ends his two-year "retirement" (a conceit not taken seriously even by people living in caves). Well, not reenergized, exactly: Jay's thing has never been excitement, but rather the unflappable cool of a man who's already seen it all. So maybe the concept has re-relaxed him; he sounds pleased to have discovered that the executive lifestyle he's been rapping about since he was a crack dealer has met his expectations.

A lot of Kingdom Come plays like a musical version of a Sharper Image catalog: "Just sent a million dollars through a hands-free," he brags in "The Prelude," provoking BlackBerry envy among middle managers across America; "I'm buying things like my shit don't stink," he adds in "Oh My God." Object fetish is nothing new for Hova, of course, but the tone here is: Jay actually can afford pretty much anything he wants today, so the acquisitive zeal of "Big Pimpin'" has drained from his voice, as has the sense of relief that shaded his tough-times lament in "Hard Knock Life." His conspicuous consumption is no longer a way to avenge the humiliation of, say, eating cereal with water instead of milk. It's just routine, one more item on his overstuffed to-do list, which is how you end up with Jay taunting "baby ballers" and "toy rappers" about how much he pays in taxes, as he does later in "Oh My God." What's next? "You Remind Me of My Stock Options"?

That's the double-edged sword Jay handles on Kingdom Come. Now that rap has allowed his inevitable transition from hustler to businessman (or a business, man), he has to figure out how to satisfy our taste for high-life reportage without boring us with boardroom minutiae. It's not an easy job: Where in the old days an overdose of his patented sangfroid only increased his lone-wolf mystique, it now carries the risk of establishing Jay as a member of the establishment—deadly to a rapper who depends, as Hov still does, on intimations of danger.

For all its progress toward becoming a form supportive of the career artist, hip hop's obsession with peril hasn't really dimmed, and likely never will. So you have to wonder if Snoop wasn't just a little relieved to be practicing his perp walk two weeks ago (especially since his January 11 hearing date won't cut into his valuable holiday-season promo time). After all, an arrest for possession of a false compartment in a vehicle only lends credence to the gangbang bullshit Snoop spews in Blue Carpet tracks such as "10 Lil' Crips," where he promises to put you "on your back when the motherfuckin' K sprays." Considering his voice work in Luc Besson's upcoming fantasy cartoon Arthur and the Invisibles, the MC probably welcomed the reiteration of his gangsta-rap bona fides.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the cognitive dissonance he produces, Snoop might be the most illustrative example out there of hip hop's welcoming embrace: Can this dude do anything to cut into his support from both inner-city OGs and suburban soccer moms? Kingdom Come presents a consistent (if somewhat lackluster) vision of Jay-Z Inc., but Tha Blue Carpet Treatment is willfully, almost proudly schizophrenic, bouncing between glossy pop-rap jams like "That's That Shit," an R. Kelly duet in which he politely stumps for a no-panties dress code, and tough hood anthems like "Gangbangn 101," where he trades street stories with the Game.

I'm not sure if this is a good thing for the record itself. On one hand, music works pretty well as a forum for defining one's personality—maybe better than it works as a trophy case for displaying what's already been codified. On the other hand, Snoop's back-and-forth here—with its thicket of mutually exclusive assertions—feels awfully cynical, less like an honest expression of complexity than a calculated attempt to please all of the people all of the time. That's pop's mandate, more or less. But if you're fortunate enough to have the world accept you as you are, shouldn't you seize the opportunity to tell us who, exactly, that is?

 
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