Jay-Z’s “D.O.A” and the Five Auto-Tuned Songs (Among Many) That Prove Him Wrong


Released late Friday, Jay-Z’s new single, “D.O.A (Death of Auto-Tune),” from the now thoroughly-announced The Blueprint 3, is less a Martin Luther-like cry for hip-hop reformation than an awkward slab of concept rap. The concept: That a new Jay-Z song about rap’s current “lack of aggression” and tight jeans, over a jagged No I.D. beat of choked clarinet and wailing guitar, simply by existing, represents the death of auto-tune.

That’s the idea anyway. Really, the song is just a new way to say “this is that real street shit”–e.g., this is that death of auto-tune shit. It’s a gimmicky song that sets out to destroy Rap & B’s latest gimmick. The stunt is reminiscent of Hip-Hop Is Dead, the rap-killing album by Jay-Z’s good buddy Nas, and Jay’s own American Gangster, which found businessman Jay-Z painted into a corner in which the only way to return to reliable gun-talk was to wrap it around a movie tie-in conceit.

In the two days or so since the song was released, “D.O.A.” hasn’t yet killed the vocal manipulation trend–and it probably won’t, ever. As VIBE‘s Sean Fennessey pointed out, HOT97–where the track debuted to the ritual flurry of Funkmaster Flex sound effects–was playing auto-tuned Ron Browz productions within a half hour of letting “D.O.A” out into the world. Can you kill something that parodied itself from its inception? When T-Pain’s collaborating with joke-rappers Lonely Island and um, Death Cab For Cutie have half-jokingly spoken out, you’re late to the game. At this point, the only thing more obnoxious than auto-tune is being categorically opposed to the trend.

Not to mention that “D.O.A.” comes at a moment when this auto-tune shit’s getting really interesting. Just in time to one-up Jay’s big comeback is “Jupiter’s Critic and the Mind of Mars” (streaming over at Cocaine Blunts) from DJ Quik and Kurupt’s BlaQKout (out on Tuesday). More fun than “D.O.A” and just as angry at recent rap trends, “Jupiter” kills auto-tune with craziness. Through a ridiculous layer of vocoder, DJ Quik rapid-fires insults at rap’s retreat to the internet: “Type that shit like you’re a vet/You ain’t nothing but a derelict/Flirting with little boys under fourteen years/Why you out there with a Gerald Levert beard?” The song, on which content happily murders form, beats the trend at its own game–it’s simultaneously a virtuoso use of the technology and reminder of how cynically others employ an inherently goofy production trick.

“Jupiter’s Critic and the Mind of Mars” is the most recent example of many to employ the program’s effects for something beyond robotically-wheezed hooks. Here are a few others that show auto-tune–hyped Jay-Z single or no hyped Jay-Z single–isn’t dying. but developing:

Kanye West: “Paranoid,” off 808s & Heartbreak

“Paranoid” is the most upbeat track on 808s and therefore, most deserving of a lilting, auto-tuned croon–yet Kanye still keeps it to a confused mumble. West uses a program most closely connected to a certain, mechanized, pop-rap joy (See: Past West/T-Pain single “Good Life”) for the opposite effect, a barely even cathartic HAL-9000 whimper. Separated from the auto-tune backlash at-large and the initial shock that Kanye wasn’t exactly rapping at the time of its release, 808s is even more fascinating in 2009. That Kanye co-produced “D.O.A” doesn’t add to the absurdity or hypocrisy of that track. It just piles more Pop-Artist creator/destroyer flamboyance atop Mr. West.

Ryan Leslie: “Gibberish,” off Ryan Leslie

The closing track on Ryan Leslie’s incredible self-titled album is a touching tribute to the goofy baby-talk lovers do when they’re totally in love, and a parody of the way auto-tune turns all that’s crooned through it into well, gibberish. Think “Shmoopy” talk from Seinfeld with Bladerunner electronics and Daft Punk synth-horns. Leslie’s a complete r&b weirdo–there’s really nothing cool about him, he’s all heart-on-the-sleeve needy nerdiness–and the “Is this a joke or what?” use of auto-tune here perfectly captures that.

Egyptian Lover: “Freaky DJ.” off Electro Pharaoh

’80s West Coast Electro pioneer Egyptian Lover dropped a digital-only EP early this year proudly made with the same vintage equipment as classics like “Egypt, Egypt.” While there’s no auto-tune on “Freaky DJ,” there is a really cool attempt to approximate the specific vocal shift of auto-tune with vintage vocoders. On this song, the hook–a stretched-out and clipped Ron Browz-on-a-budget shout of “Freaky DJ!”–bumps up against more decidedly vintage voice effects. Inside “Freaky DJ” is the weird history of vocal manipulation from its electro beginnings to the T-Pain present day.

DJ Class: “I’m the Ish,” off the upcoming Coldspring & Alameda

Part of the Baltimore Club scene since the genre’s start in the early 90s, Unruly Records’ DJ Class’ newest single stick’s to the city’s hard-headed formula for dance music (raucous drums, high BPMs, vaguely obscene shout-outs) but auto-tunes the genre’s usually gruff vocals. The result: A Billboard-charting single with remixes by Lil Jon and Kanye West. Decidedly regional with enough (but not too much) radio appeal, “I’m the Ish” is the kind of trend-hopping meets “street” allegiance that, even coated in auto-tune, might make Jay-Z proud.