Jay-Z vs. Jay-Z

Suddenly vulnerable hip-hop superstars go to war with themselves

DISCUSSED
Jay-Z American Gangster #18 album
Kanye West Graduation #6 album
"Good Life" ft. T-Pain #29 single

He's pandering to you. Stooping to your level. He'd be smarter, more complex, more nuanced, less prurient, but you couldn't handle it, or in any event you wouldn't like it as much, and he thus wouldn't make as much money, which would adversely affect the economy. This is Jay-Z's contention. And it's led us to "Ignorant Shit," both the zenith and nadir of this Era of Jay-Z's Low Opinion of You, with a luxurious chorus consisting primarily of elegantly assembled 10-pound cusses: Nigga fuck shit ass bitch trick plus ice. (I absolutely love the "plus.") Here is the crass, brain-dead rap song you requested.

"Ignorant Shit" dates back to 2003, as does the more widely distributed Black Album, as does the pandering. (He is couth enough, at least, to leave out the part in the original about giving him brain and then getting the fuck out, please.) Rapper/critic/evangelist J.B. Best first pointed out for me Jay's you-can't-handle-my-genius thesis, as elucidated on Black's "Moment of Clarity":

I dumb down for my audience to double my dollars
They criticize me for it, but they all yell, "Holla!"
If skills sold, truth be told
I'd probably be, lyrically, Talib Kweli
Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense (But I did five mil)
I ain't been rhymin' like Common since.

This is funnier in retrospect, of course, given that after completing The Black Album, Jay-Z "retired," then flopped majestically last year with Kingdom Come because he tried to rhyme like Common. Everyone hates Kingdom Come—say "30 is the new 20" to a Jay-Z fan and see if he doesn't just punch you in the face. So American Gangster is his penance, his Return to Form. Did I mention I used to sell drugs? Perhaps we could sample a few songs from the '70s and discuss it. And "Ignorant Shit," easily the best song here, is where he bitches about it. Look what you made me do. It's deliriously, deliciously defensive, a crabby superstar rapper griping about the necessity of balancing what he'd like to talk about with what he has to talk about to still get your attention, and your money. Incidentally, hip-hop had a terrible year.

Start with 2006's commercial victor, T.I. No one hates last year's T.I. vs. T.I.P. per se, but no one much wants to talk about it: Though its moments of violence and menace are truly chilling (especially those involving Busta Rhymes), it eventually devolves into a very, very contrived battle royale between "Hollywood" T.I. and "street" T.I., featuring several tracks wherein these two sides of his persona are literally swearing at each other. "Fuck you," says T.I., to T.I. This is only gripping in the masturbatory sense. His Did I mention I used to sell drugs? chatter is a damn sight more visceral than Jay-Z's, of course, but this has its downside: In 2008, T.I. will stand trial for illegally purchasing automatic weapons. (And silencers.) Let's call that fight a draw, and stay out of it.

50 Cent? Know this: Soft-bellied rappers attempting to sound "hard" aren't half as funny as hard-boiled rappers attempting to sound "soft." 50 Cent's love songs are mesmerizing: "Follow My Lead" is like an enraged man forced to deliver a romantic sonnet at gunpoint, except he periodically realizes the gun isn't loaded. In addition to fabulous one-liners that'd get him kicked off eHarmony.com ("I got a great sense of humor"; "I ain't lookin' for commitment: We can fuck and be friends"), you get schizophrenic stuff like this:

I like you a lot
I don't want to hurt you
But I call a square a square
and a circle a circle
So if you act like a bitch, I'll call you a bitch

Got it. This is the first verse of his "for the ladies" track. Yeah, Curtis has some problems-—Kanye West, primarily, but Kanye's got his own crosses to bear. With back-to-back Pazz & Jop wins for The College Dropout and Late Registration, this year's poll was his to lose, and Graduation lost it. The thrill is gone, or at least diminished. He once sounded hungry; now he just sounds full. Full of himself, of course, as always, but also sated, bloated, satisfied. "Everything I'm not made me everything I am," he announces (that's a really pretty song, actually), but now that he's everything he wasn't (rich, famous, fashionable, lousy with blonde dykes), he's not sure where to go, what to do, what to aspire to next. Graduation is a deflated victory lap, a closed loop, a road to nowhere. "Good Life" is bright, bubbly, garish, and triumphant— T-Pain even sounds palatable!— but its shiny anime gloss sounds like the ending credits to a Super Mario Bros. sequel, nothing left to conquer, nothing to do now but play the exact same game over again, just now it's artificially "harder." Will he actually call his next album Master's Degree? Will you care about it?

Because here's the crux of why everyone soured on hip-hop in 2007: The last song on the highest-ranking Pazz & Jop rap album ends with a track describing how the two biggest MCs in the world bickered over who had the idea to collaborate with Coldplay first. This is not acceptable. In fact, most of the conflicts Jay and Kanye describe these days are plainly ludicrous. The latter has a track complaining about "Drunk and Hot Girls." The former has 99 new problems, and you don't want to hear about any of them. #47: His girlfriend is so famous and well-traveled his suggested vacation spots can't possibly impress her. #81: He only has time to drive maybe half the cars he owns. "Everything I seen made me everything I am," Jay says, but he's got the same problem as Kanye: Hasn't he seen everything by now? What's left to talk about?

Don Imus, for one thing. Jay has a reliably sure hand with current events: post-Katrina soul-searching and hand-wringing on Kingdom Come's "Minority Report," and now a brief dip into the nappy-headed-hos debate on his new addition to "Ignorant Shit," wherein he deftly swats aside his old pal Russell Simmons's attempt to lay society's malaise at hip-hop's feet: "Scarface the movie did more than Scarface the rapper to me." Here's the problem: In 2007, Scarface released the bleak, vicious MADE. Al Pacino did Ocean's 13: dapper but fantastically dour men surrounded by opulence they clearly don't enjoy, chasing One Last Big Score because that's all they've ever known, seeking money and power almost joylessly, playing their nonchalance for cheap, flashy laughs.

Furthermore, this approach is plainly logical, the best of several terrible options. American Gangster is a relative success, while Lupe Fiasco, for one, piously refused to "Dumb It Down"—and flopped. But even dumb doesn't play too well anymore. Thus chastened, Jay-Z and his brethren can either write a new script or just give up and play out the final scene in Goodfellas: "See the hardest thing for me was leaving the life. I still love the life." (Chorus: Nigga fuck shit ass bitch trick plus ice.) "And that's the hardest part. Today everything is different. There's no action. I have to wait around like everyone else." (Nigga fuck shit maricón puta and drugs.) "I'm an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook." Of course, 12 years later Ray Liotta gave his voice to another fresh, exhilarating symphony of power, money, and violence: Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. There will always be hope.

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