After the age of 30, most aging wordsmiths hobble along the side of the hip-hop expressway, searching far and wide for relevancy in the ever-evolving world of rap. These ripening luminaries are often caught in a brutal trap in which they must appeal to youth while still catering to the insatiable true hip-hop head. The code for escape is never the same and changes at a daily rate.
In the midst of this musical chaos, Jay-Z walks down the middle of the road, paving his own path while drawing on the experiences of his predecessors. A witty lyricist and a savvy businessman, Jay-Z has always remained one step ahead of his peers and adversaries on his way to commercial success.
His impeccable flow and ear for gritty yet pop-savvy beats have earned him wealth, celebrity and Beyoncé Knowles. Standing alone at a juncture that few rappers before him have reached, Jay-Z releases “The Blueprint 3” (2009) as an established and renowned artist who, beneath the surface, is engaged in a quiet struggle for relevancy.
In June of this past summer, Jay-Z came out with the single “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune).” Armed with a No I.D.-produced beat based on soulful jazz samples, Jay-Z ruminates on almost every controversial hip-hop issue making headlines today — from skinny jeans to faux drug-dealer artists — with an emphasis on the advent of auto-tune.
An old man in hip-hop years, Jay-Z denounces the stylized nuance of young, upcoming rappers. He leaves behind subtlety in order to convey his message clearly: “This is anti-auto-tune, death of the ringtone/ This ain’t for iTunes, this ain’t for sing-alongs”.
Jay-Z should be applauded for his courage in taking a stand on already divisive issues. He chose to have his second single, “Run this Town,” communicate that he is acutely aware of the haggard state of hip-hop and that he’s not going to sit idly by while it deteriorates. The only problem is that he’s two years too late. Auto-tune has been solidified as a crutch for lesser hip-hop artists seeking mainstream play, and artists such as Lil’ Wayne and Kanye West have implemented the tool with unique and creative results.
“D.O.A.” is indicative of Jay’s position in uncharted waters; he attempts to create somewhat new material while appealing to the masses who threaten to abandon him at any moment.
And appeal he does. Laced with the freshest beats from the who’s-who of hip-hop super producers — including Kanye West, Pharrell and Timbaland, to name a few — Jay-Z reminds listeners just why he’s so rich. He maintains the smooth-as-butter flow, ostentatious tone and the drug dealer and money references that his listeners are used to hearing.
In addition, several of the tracks on the CD are tinged with the subtle electronica elements that have been infiltrating hip-hop for the last two years. It’s a new sound for Jay-Z, and it’s refreshing on the ears. He even manages to get some well-needed indie cred with this album by making songs with blogosphere darlings Santigold, Luke Steele of Empire of the Sun and upcoming rappers J. Cole and Kid Cudi.
Hands down, the best song on the album is “Empire State of Mind,” an ode to New York featuring fellow New Yorker Alicia Keys. Keys soars on the hook while Jay-Z exalts the city that birthed him over raining piano loops.
Amidst the parade of hits on the album, however, several clunkers dull the CD’s brilliance. Surprisingly, Timbaland supplies Jay with two lackluster beats, and Swizz Beatz offers Jay a semi-experimental track that sounds repetitive after two minutes. Additionally, “Venus vs. Mars” is a mess of a track in which Jay attempts to wittily dissect the differences between male and female.
Still, Jay-Z reminds the world of his greatness without too much exertion, relying on the same formula he’s used throughout his career. He is relaxed in cruise control, driving comfortably down the hip-hop expressway and maintaining the relevancy that has eluded so many before him.