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Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Forever Young: A look back on the last three albums from Jay-Z

Forever Young:
A look back on the last three albums from Jay-Z

by Julian Obubo

“Forever young, I wanna be Forever Young”

So goes the chorus on the last track on Shawn Carter’s latest album: The Blueprint 3. For some, at 39, Jay-Z is much too old to still be in the rap game, an industry that over the last few years seems to require a new dance to accompany a single.

With your Soulja Boys and Young this and Young that, can the self-proclaimed Young Hov still compete?

I think we all know the answer to that question, and if we don’t, then maybe Glastonbury and the success of American Gangster will jog your memory. Or maybe you need to do a google search on ‘Roc Nation’, or perhaps just look up the current top ten songs in America right now.

In 2002 when Jay-Z retired after dropping The Black Album, many felt he had cemented his place in hip-hop history, a string of number one albums, a hard fought feud with Nas (which I felt he won) and many hot lines and verses. In fact Jay-Z felt pretty much the same way about his career, he was famously ‘finished’ at the end of the ’99 Problems’ video, going out under a hail of bullets. (a scene that would seem very premature when viewed today)

But we would be suckers if we really believed HOVA was out for good, in 2006 after joining forces with the UN to help fight the lack of clean water in developing nations, Jay-Z went on a world tour, a tour that took him to places like Korea and Tanzania, he even got a chieftaincy title and a road named after him in Nigeria.

Soon after the tour ended, the world learned that Jay-Z would be releasing another album, this one called: Kingdom Come. The title borrowed from the comic series in which Superman famously returns. The rap world was excited and optimistic. What would this album sound like, would it be gangster/street like his earlier efforts? The lead single ‘Show me what you got’ was a glitzy, showy, fabulous song, with a video shot in Monaco- it was chic, it was modern, refined, and mature.

Jay-Z realised that people would catch feelings about his comeback, on ‘Show me what you got’ he proclaimed himself the ‘Mike Jordan of recording’, and that other rappers might ‘wanna fall back from recording’ Shawn Carter was aiming to grab the ownerless hip-hop crown and sit at the throne that he vacated.

When the album did drop reactions were varied, in fact I call it the most divisive Jay-Z album. Some people absolutely loved it (myself included) and others hated it.

I can understand the reactions from those who didn’t like it; this album was very different from Reasonable Doubt, this album wasn’t Volume II, it wasn’t even like The Black Album. This was the first mainstream album by a respected figure in hip-hop where that artist was ‘keeping it real’...as real as a man worth $400 million would keep it. Jay-Z wasn’t moving keys or shooting up people, Jay-Z was with Beyonce, so he wasn’t ‘skeet skeeting’ or singing ‘booty’ songs. His new work dealt with the life he was now accustomed to, the question was now: “Can true hip-hop be done by a wealthy businessman who raps about adventures in his wealthy world?” sure you can argue that that wasn’t an entirely new issue, 50 Cent is wealthy too, so was Ja Rule at one time, Snoop etc. But we have to remember that while all these rappers were wealthy in real life their music wasn’t reflective of it. They would sign contracts to promote Vitamin Water, but their music would tell you of how they are still selling cocaine and still killing foes. That was the plot that we hip-hop heads were conversant with: “The mansion owner who tried to convince you he was still on the corner” Posing with guns while in reality they had extensive security personnel. Hip-Hop was a paradox, and the consumers were happy with it.

What Kingdom Come did was to expose that paradox. Jay-Z basically said “Hey guys, I’m rich now, I’m no longer involved in crime or the drugs, therefore I don’t have to rap about it” Jay-Z was displaying what every normal person goes through- Maturity. He had transcended the bulletproof vest wearing, or street dvd “come and see me in the hood with all my guns” rubbish. Jay-Z was at the same time telling other rappers to keep it as real as he was. He wasn’t disrespecting the hood or belittling the narratives of young rappers who spoke of the ills they face regularly, why would he? It was his life in the projects that got him to where he was. He had recorded Reasonable Doubt- that was his truth then, Kingdom Come was his truth now!

But Jay-Z is no fool, Jay-Z knew that some of his fans wanted Reasonable Doubt again, they wanted drug narratives, rags to riches, rise and fall, some good old “mafia s**t”. If that was what they wanted, Jay-Z was going to find a way to give it to them. One option was to simply do another ‘gangsta’ album and act like Kingdom Come never existed. Jay-Z could just be a gun toting gangster on the album and raise a middle finger to everyone who respected Kingdom Come. The other option was to find a mature and intelligent way of recreating Reasonable Doubt, while maintaining his credibility.

Luckily, his break came in the form of Ridley Scott’s ‘American Gangster’, a movie about 7os New York drug kingpin Frank Lucas. Using this as a platform, Jay-Z announced a concept album, also entitled American Gangster. The album was to follow a similar narrative as the movie, charting a young man’s entry, rise and fall in the drug game.

We were treated to the triumphant single ‘Roc Boys’ which could have easily fit in Reasonable Doubt but still felt very relevant and timely. When the album dropped: fans were satisfied, critics were pleased and generally mouths gaped: not only at the sheer smoothness of the beats, but at Jay-Z’s intricate wordsmithery, no two songs had the same flow, no two songs dealt with the same topic, this album was thorough, this album was clean, it was deep (No hook, Say Hello) introspective (American Dreamin’, Pray) Flamboyant (Sweet, Roc Boys, Party Life) Intelligent (I Know, Ignorant Shit,), this album, was in my opinion Jay-Z’s magnum opus.

The sheer monstrous perfection of American Gangster dwarfed the solidity of Kingdom Come. Kingdom Come, while being full of witty lyrics and some good beats just looks completely average next to American Gangster. With American Gangster, where no foot was put wrong, we are immediately reminded of the missteps on Kingdom Come (I Made It & Anything)

So when in 2008 Jay-Z announced that he was making a new album his fans went into a frenzy. Those that felt salty about Kingdom Come had their fears alleviated by the classic American Gangster, surely his new album could only be better; expectations were high.

When Jay-Z said that the album was going to be entitled The Blueprint 3, expectations got even higher, could this album live up to the succinct genius of the first Blueprint?, can it come close to the commercial success of Blueprint 2?

Jay-Z gave us little appetizers along the way, from ‘You’re all welcome’ featuring Mary J Blige to the single worthy History produced by Kanye West and the lyrical ‘Brooklyn Go Hard’ featuring Santigold. All of these tracks were solid, and if the album was made up of songs like these then we were fine.

Of course, Jay-Z hardly disappoints, and when it came time for the official single to be realised, he set the hip-hop world on fire by choosing D.O.A (Death of Auto-Tune)

I happened to be listening to Hot97 when they debuted this song, it seemed the whole of New York came to a standstill, the microblogging site Twitter was inundated with talk of Jay-Z. Weaker rappers must have been shaking in their boots, people felt that Jay-Z was coming for all those guilty of using auto-tune in their records, “OMG he must be gunning for Lil Wayne and T-Pain” they said, but what about his protégé Kanye, surely they can’t be feuding too?! But then they listened again, and heard that Jay-Z actually bigs up Kanye on the song, and a few weeks later he appeared on stage with T-Pain. It was then people started to understand the meaning of D.O.A. Jay-Z wasn’t starting a beef, or looking for undeserved publicity, he was mainly highlighting the homogeneity of hip-hop today, auto-tune symbolized the lack of diversity, the band-wagon mentality that has plagued hip hop for a few years now. Everyone using the same people on hooks, everyone having a new dance, everyone dressing the same way, talking about the same things; artists were essentially trying to out-do each other by doing what each other was doing.

The second single Run This Town features Kanye West and Rihanna and is fundamentally a song about marking territory, in case we need reminding, Jay-Z tells us that he is on top, and he has no plans of relinquishing his position.

Listening to the Blueprint 3, you sense even more growth and even more maturity from Shawn Carter, the Blueprint 3 is more Kingdom Come than Blueprint. It is intelligent, witty, vibrant and loud. Songs like Empire State of Mind featuring a brilliant chorus from Alicia Keys simply make you fall in love not only with Jay-Z’s music but with hip-hop all over again. Already Home ft Kid Cudi is perhaps is the best summary of Jay-Z’s current philosophy, it condenses Jay-Z’s relationship with hip-hop and other rappers into 4.30 mins.

The album is not without its missteps though, and those shortcomings a largely down to Timbaland’s production (Venus vs Mars, Reminder, Off That ft Drake), bear in mind that Timbaland once said that he was going to be the only producer on Blueprint 3, well, we thank God that didn’t happen. Timbaland’s beats are bland and lack the vibrancy that songs on his Shock Value album had, these ones are very repetitive and as much as Jay-Z tries to salvage them with witty wordplay one can’t help but think that Kanye should have at least tweaked those beats a bit.

Regarding the next single I believe we are spoiled for choice, Jay-Z could go with the upbeat A Star is Born featuring a sure future star J. Cole, a song where he pays homage to some of those who have made moves in hip-hop or he could go with the aforementioned New York anthem ‘Empire State of Mind or the Swizz Beatz produced ‘On to the next one

One song however that would be a sure success if realised as a single has to be the final song ‘Young Forever’ featuring Mr Hudson. It is very reminiscent of the final song on Kingdom Come, Beach Chair, and in fact, both songs feature British singers with similar voices on the hook, Beach Chair featuring Coldplay lead singer Chris Martin. But while Beach Chair was drum-heavy, hard, punchy and yet dreamlike, ‘Young Forever’ has a softer and thus a more emotional feel to it, Mr Hudson’s unique voice does wonders on the hook. Jay-Z speaks on how he wants to be remembered not just after he finishes with rap, but long after he is gone. The song is about legacy, the legacy of a legend.

The Blueprint 3 is a strong album, and I think it will satisfy most Jay-Z fans, sure it could have done with a story telling song like ‘Song Cry’ ‘Allure’ or ‘I Know’, but I think its strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. For an artist who only has himself to beat Jay-Z has shown us that age is no barrier to making fresh and relevant music. Jay-Z has most importantly shown the hip-hop world that it is okay to grow up and mature, one cannot be in the streets forever, with the same breath, one should not forget the streets forever. Jay-Z, over the last few years has displayed an ability for serious self reflection and self criticism in his life and consequently in his music, and I think it is his willingness to grow and his fearlessness in the face of tradition that has propelled him to the status he has today, and if we felt uneasy when he called himself ‘The Best Rapper Alive’ in 2003, I guess with the albums he has released since then he is truly worthy of that title, if not ‘The Best Rapper Ever’

so in summation, I don’t know who ya’ll racing, I’m already at the finish line with the flag waving

Jay-Z “Already Home


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Man, I totally agree on that.

There's just way too many suckers out there that can't grasp.

In fact, I was arguing with my best friend sean yesterday about this, and
they wouldn't believe me that he was wrong. Now I can just show them your blog :)