I understand that I am one of the few people in the world that really like the new Jay-Z album, and I’m fine with that (consider this Taylor vs. Everyone Else, Part 2). I also understand that regardless of what I say here, few of you will be convinced. But I’ve never been the type of person to give up without a fight.
When choosing how to do his comeback, Jay-Z could have done anything, but the history of comebacks mostly presents us with two choices: over the top ridiculousness (compensating) or straight-forwardness (lack-luster but honest). He chose the latter, and he chose wisely. In a music genre where sentimentality and older age rarely make themselves available, Jay-Z is unafraid to discuss both. These things don’t make a hip-hop or rap album automatically good, but they do make it interesting, and they do make it different. Sure, the album has its weak moments — the Chris Martin track is atrocious (Pitchfork happened to think it was the best, which baffles me). And yes, pretending you’re the biggest name in rap after a hiatus is a bit cocksure. But the fact of the matter is that he’s proven himself over and over, and he’s earned that right. Of all the rappers that would have us think that they’re the best act in town, I’m still more inclined to believe Jay-Z.
But this isn’t Rolling Stone, and I’m not about to give 4 stars to any album from any veteran of any genre only because they’re a veteran. The aesthetic, the feel of the album is what appeals to me the most. More than anything, rap of 2000 and beyond is all about being flashy. The drug-dealing, crime committing lifestyle is still there, but it’s not the focus anymore. Lately it’s all about the women, the cars, the watches, the champagne that come as a result (Clipse anyone? Oh, I’ll get to them). Rap has been as much about partying and dancing as dance music. That’s all fine and good, but the fact that Kingdom Come isn’t about that is what makes it stand out to me even more. The tone is darker, heavier. This isn’t music to play in the background at a club, this is music to listen to. It may not be his forte, and it may not be what rap is supposed to be all about. But even in its flaws — indeed, partly because of them — it feels more honest and revealing than a lot of what he’s done.
Before I start hating on Clipse, let me say this: I do like Hell Hath No Fury, and I do understand why people are raving about it. Hell, the morning that I first started writing this, I had “Ride Around Shinning” stuck in my head. There’s no doubt that these two are extremely talented at dropping a clever one-liner or rhyme, and working with and against each beat. But that does not an album of the year make.
What have Clipse shown us besides their ability to spout off some well-planned lines and rhymes, bob and weave around beats and make music critics (read: men ages 18-35) swoon? What have they told us about life? Hell, what have they told us about their own lives? Nothing. If all I wanted was to hear a smooth-talker give me useless information about high-end goods, I would’ve gone to a salesman. Then I could’ve just pretended like I wanted to spend money instead of having to actually spend it, like I had to for this album.
It’s not that every piece of music needs to be riddled with deeper meaning. There are plenty of great songs that are simple through and through. But even a lot of those songs provide us with some kind of catharsis or connection, and those that don’t at least supplement themselves with a hook or refrain that nags at your brain. Very little on the Clipse record makes for a lasting impression. And despite the abundance of witty lyrics being thrown around, I can’t remember a single one of them without going back to the album — and I have a damn good memory. Speaking of which, I actually just remembered a few: “When I’m shoveling that snow, call me frosty, lover.” “My niggers say I’m p-noid. They say I’m just p-noid.” “Whamp whamp, what it do, what it do.” What poetry! What intrigue! What… crap. Look, I’m being tough on them here, and I know it. There are better lines on this album than I’ve quoted, but like I said, they just don’t stick in my memory. Believe it or not, I do like this album. I just don’t think it deserves as much praise as its gotten.
A lot of people have been saying that the beats on Hell Hath No Fury are some of the Neptunes’ best, but I don’t see why. They’re not the kind of relaxed, smooth beats that you can listen to while you’re just hanging out, and they’re not the kind of jumping, grooving beats that make you want to get up and dance. They’re hard-hitting and stagnant. You can’t really do anything to this album but listen to it, and it’s not interesting enough to spend that much time doing so. You can listen to it in short spurts, but the whole thing? Go ahead, sit down and don’t do a thing but listen to this album and see how far you get. I usually have to stop after three or four in order to save myself a headache.
Sorry, men, but you’ve been duped by two master showmen. They’ve given you nothing of themselves, and in return, you’ve given them your time, money and adoration (fyi, gentlemen, this is what it feels like to be a woman in college). You’ve been blinded by what you think is a diamond, when it’s actually cubic zirconia. And Clipse knows this. They have to “ride around shining while [they] can afford it,” ’cause they won’t be able to afford it for long.
It’s not Clipse’s fault. This is what the industry has demanded of them. This is what we’ve told them to do, this is what successful rap music has sounded like for years. And, really, the overall problem that I have with the Clipse record is the problem that I have with a lot of rap records: I’m really not that interested in hearing how amazing someone thinks they are. The world is filled with men who think they’re more incredible than they actually are. Telling everyone about it on a CD is not only self-indulgent, but redundant. What’s worse is that most of them can’t even back it up.
This kind of thing is what irks me a bit about the Lupe Fiasco record, as well. On about half of the songs, the first thing he says is either his own name or the name of the album. Doing this once or twice? Sure. But doing this all the time? It’s hard to tell whether he thinks we might forget who we’re listening to, or he just thinks so highly of himself and his record (which is my guess, considering the 12 MINUTE LONG SHOUT-OUT TRACK, ARE YOU INSANE?), but either way, it’s uncalled for and slightly annoying after repeated listens.
Food & Liquor does have some commonality with Kingdom Come. A lot of the beats are jazz and soul based, which I find more interesting as I get into those genres more and more. And, like Jay-Z, Mr. Fiasco’s attempts at sentimentality are hit-or-miss. However, unlike Jay-Z, who just sounds a bit cheesy when he misses, Fiasco’s failed attempts are positively stomach churning. Don’t even get me started on “Hurts Me Soul.” It’s awful. It’s so, so, so awful. It’s so bad that I don’t even want to waste time writing another word about it. Luckily, tracks like “Real” and “Daydreamin'” more than make up for the weaknesses. Though, lastly, I have to admit that the proud woman in me gets a little angry when he says that a woman is being a man by providing for a family. Can’t we get past that? My god. Again, I’m being too negative here, and I have to back-up. I think this is a really good album, and I like that, unlike Clipse, Lupe can broach serious topics successfully, but I think that, like Hell Hath No Fury, its lasting power isn’t very high.
I hate to say it, but after running my mouth off and being negative all this time, I can’t really explain why I like the Blue Sky Black Death album so much. It’s another dark, mysterious album that just fit my state of mind and my mood at the time that it came along, and I like it for some of the same reasons that I like Kingdom Come: it’s different and it’s interesting. I don’t listen to instrumental rap (or turntablists, if you prefer) that often, but the instrumental CD of the 2 CD set is especially great.
I would explain why I liked the Ghostface album, but didn’t love it like everyone else did, but by this point I’ve told you so many of my thoughts about rap that you could probably guess pretty accurately. Though I’ll say this: dear rappers, stop with the fucking skits already. love, Taylor T-Sides.
Jay-Z, Kingdom Come
Blue Sky Black Death, A Heap of Broken Images
Lupe Fiasco, Food & Liquor
Clipse, Hell Hath No Fury
Ghostface Killah, Fishscale