Sobs, Static, and Sweat

Then, in 1998, he deftly switched gears, producing a string of masterful collaborations including "Money, Cash, Hoes," featuring DMX; "Things that U Do," featuring Mariah Carey; and the infamous "Hard Knock Life (The Ghetto Anthem)," featuring a chorus of loudmouthed orphans. The Dynasty: Roc La Familia (2000- ), Jay-Z's fifth album in as many years, adds another new pop classic—a Rick James update called "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)." Over a guitar-and-drum punch cooked up by the Neptunes, Jay-Z tells a story that sounds like Pretty Womanin reverse: He's a high roller with a heart of gold, waiting for some hooker to come along and drag him back into the gutter. Like Julia Roberts, he's not quite heartless enough to stick to the no-nonsense rules of the sex trade: "Might buy you Cris', but that about it/Might light your wrist, but that about it/Fuck it—I might wife you and buy you nice whips." He's talking about champagne, diamonds, and cars, but his words are soon washed away by a pair of irresistible choruses, crooned in a ridiculous falsetto.

Jay-Z's in fine form throughout, but the production sounds a bit flat (big-name beatmakers like DJ Premier, Swizz Beatz, and Timbaland are conspicuously absent), and apprentices Memphis Bleek and Beanie Sigel ride roughshod over the 15 songs. As usual, Bleek raps like he's on autopilot, boiling down Jay-Z's persona into a charmless caricature. Sigel is more engrossing, exaggerating Jay-Z's propensity for polysyllabic rhyme by repeating words and sounds so that each line bleeds into the next. He can be pedantic, but when he hits his stride, the effect is mesmerizing. On a weepy (it's an epidemic!) song called "Where Have You Been," Sigel hollers at his deadbeat dad: "It's about time we have a father-to-son/Sit down, let me tell you about your fatherless sons/How they grew to be men, and fathered their sons/Fathered their daughters/Nigga, you left a fatherless daughter/I'll never follow your orders." Where's Isaac Hayes when you need him?

The most alarming thing about Roc La Familiais the occasional whiff of desperation. On "Squeeze 1st," Jay-Z borrows a chorus from the Notorious B.I.G. and a trebly beat from Eminem's scrap heap, then repeats his favorite stanza four times in a row. What do you do after you've conquered the world? Like the Wu-Tang Clan, Jay-Z doesn't really have an answer. Maybe that explains why both Roc La Familiaand The Wfeature embarrassing excursions into screaming melodrama, not to mention ill-considered cameos by Snoop Dogg—everyone's trying too hard. Maybe this anxiety explains all the static: The Wstarts and finishes with the noise of a radio being tuned, and Roc La Familiafloats out on a bed of vinyl hisses and pops.

For a few years in the late 1990s, the Wu-Tang Clan and Jay-Z left the hip-hop world behind. They were businessmen, warriors, leaders, and visionaries, but mostly they were heroes. And they made casual, unhurried, effortlessly exciting albums, as if there were a million places they'd rather be. But someone's unplugged the hype machine, and the thrilling arrogance of a few years ago has been replaced by a certain unseemly eagerness to please. (Quick, get Snoop Dogg!) Wu-Tang and Jay-Z have fallen back to earth, and they're doing their best to make sure they don't fall any further. These albums sound like hard work.

I suppose there's nothing wrong with that. Part of what makes hip-hop so exciting is that it doesn't much reward veterans: Even industry giants have to hustle to keep up with the young guns. Still, it's disappointing to hear Jay-Z and the Wu-Tang Clan breaking a sweat. A few years ago, it seemed like they could do anything they put their minds to—rap was the least of their worries. Things are different now. It's like a rude awakening: You mean all they know how to do is rap?

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