I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Destiny’s Child’s “Soldier,” the song that gave this blog its name. I didn’t choose Status Ain’t Hood as the blog’s name because I particularly loved the song; I chose it because it’s a catchy, sticky phrase and because I figured that I should start making fun of myself before everybody else jumped on the pile. I always liked “Soldier,” but it never felt like a momentous pop moment; it was just a pretty good second single from a pretty bad album, an update on the good-girls-love-bad-guys meme that had probably already been well-trod in pop music when the Crystals recorded “He’s a Rebel.” Still, the name turned out to be weirdly prescient, at least as far as the blog goes. If there’s anyone who’s been the subject of more Status entries than T.I. and Lil Wayne, the song’s two guests, it’s Jay-Z, the person who almost certainly put the song together. At the time, Jay had sort of taken T.I. and Wayne under his wing in different ways. T.I.’s single “Bring Em Out” had just sampled Jay’s voice on its chorus, and Jay had started bringing T.I. out onstage at his post-retirement shows. Meanwhile, rumors had been saying that Jay was actively trying to sign Wayne to Def Jam, and Wayne had consistently been paying Jay tribute in his lyrics. Both rappers clearly learned a lot from Jay, especially from his slow, assured under-the-beat delivery and his style of writing lyrics that seems simple at first but turn out to be densely allusive. On “Soldier,” they both seem to be stand-ins for Jay, who probably didn’t want to do another song with Beyonce so soon after “Crazy in Love.” A few years later, though, T.I. and Wayne have both become enormously important entities in rap, and neither one seems to be standing on Jay’s shoulders anymore; Wayne has gone so far as to take direct shots at Jay in interviews and lyrics. And now that Jay seems comfortable in obsolescence, sounding creaky and unmotivated in guest-appearances on songs like Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” T.I. and Wayne seem to be vying with each other for king-of-rap honors. The combined power of the two of them is such that their presences can turn a song like DJ Khaled’s “We the Best” into a serious contender for jam of the summer despite the inclusion of three markedly inferior rappers in between them. Until this morning, I’m pretty sure that Jay had never appeared on a song with either T.I. or Wayne. But earlier today, the T.I. vs. T.I.P. track “Watch What You Say” leaked, Jay-Z guest appearance and all. I’d probably be overstating things a whole lot if I called it a passing-the-scepter moment, so I won’t do that, but I am pretty amped about this one.
“Watch What You Say” definitely isn’t going the be the song of the summer, and that’s probably for the best. It’s a simmering, low-key banger, a total album track, which means it doesn’t sound forced or over-planned. If something like “Black Republican” has a flaw, it’s in the way it was so deafeningly built up before anyone even heard it; it’s rap’s equivalent of the De Niro/Pacino scene in Heat. “Watch What You Say,” by contrast, is just a song; it’s not an event. The beat comes from frequent T.I. collaborator Kevin “Khao” Cates, not from some superstar producer, and T.I. sounds totally at home on the warm, organic track. It’s the sort of track he was born to flow on; its organs and 808-claps and live bass and hazy guitar-peals connect it to a wider Southern-rap tradition that has nothing to do with club or siren-synths or finger-snaps: UGK, Dungeon Fam, 8Ball & MJG. Even more encouraging, Jay sounds just as comfortable as T.I. In recent months, Jay’s guest appearances have been hit or (mostly) miss. He barely even pays attention to the beat these days, and his metaphors and boasts have become increasingly lazy, like he thinks that the mere fact of his presence on a song is enough. But “Watch What You Say” is a track that could’ve easily been made ten years ago, and tracks like that seem to remind Jay who he is. His verse here doesn’t have a whole lot of attention-grabbing lyrical pyrotechnics, but he sticks hard to the beat and makes his disgust at fake rappers vivid and tangible. The song is all about fake rappers. It’s a series of warning shots at rappers who might be getting too big for their own heads. Jay: “I hear you baiting me lately / I’ve been doing my best just to stay hater-free / Still, watch what you say to me.” T.I.: “Be a man, say my name if you talkin’ to me / You never say it, I figure you ain’t talkin’ to me / Find out you is at the awards or whether caught in the street / I swear, I’ll beat your fucking ass the way it ought to be beat.” I don’t know if Jay and T.I. are talking about the same person, or even if they’re talking about anyone in particular. If either one of them hints at it being about someone specific, I haven’t been able to catch it, though I have to imagine that Jay’s getting a little bit sick of Wayne’s jabs. (And now that I think of it, Jay’s “put you all in your place like I’m replacing your father” line sure reads as a subliminal against Wayne.) In any case, though, it doesn’t particularly matter who they’re talking about. All that matters is that T.I. and Jay-Z have just recorded a song together and that both of them sound like themselves on it. At this point, that’s all we can ask.
Last week, I wrote that I was worried about T.I. vs. T.I.P., mostly because the split-personality concept seemed like a really bad idea for T.I. and because neither of the first two singles sounded like a world-devouring monster. But the lazy fake-reggae lope of “You Know What It Is” has really grown on me in the last couple of weeks, especially since the Shottas-remake video came out, goofy dancing and cell-phone product-placement and all. And “Watch What You Say” is a totally effortless, comfortable track, T.I. not sounding the least bit intimidated to finally be on a track with Jay. All of a sudden, I’m excited about the album again. Even if there’s no “What You Know,” I’d be more than satisfied with an album where T.I. firmly stays within his line and does a full hour of the slow, humid trunk-rattlers that he does better than anyone else in the world. His unbelievably goofy self-interview videos have only gotten loonier and loonier, but fuck it. I just hope he pulls it off; the summer needs him.