Friday, September 4, 2009

Blueprint 3: 21 Jumpstreet

To re-up the deflated mythology surrounding The Blueprint 3 consider the pulpy trope of the professional con in secluded retirement being lured back into the game by some dangerously vested interest, spurred by an old foe, a trifling youngin' or barely abated habit. Obviously this would have been more fitting for Kingdom Come but as far as anyone's concerned anything put out after the Black Album is a favor. Jay hasn't exactly been secluded but he does need this in a way, for personal reasons.

"Put your name in the pot already, then you can compare me to biggie and PAC already. Like im gone already and i am nigga i'm already home already"

He made it out of the 90's rap beefs and his throne status on best of charts isn't posthumous. He's curating 3D portfolios on tv commercials, being out-yachted by Grizzly Bear's voices, and failing at realty development. His mouth was his main money maker, famously unscripted feats of memory and improv in the studio, now it's just spilt ink in supermarket rags, prenups and contracts. If not for us, the consumer, he's just going to be grandpa yelling at furniture after making toasts to dinner guests.

"We talking bout real shit or we talkin bout rhymes?"

When an author's done spinning yarns, they take respite in just telling you about themselves, thus the memoir. For Jay Z, that was the Black Album. Unable to recapitulate that he pulled a Styron a la Sophie's Choice and etched his bio into someone else's story on American Gangster, a narrative trick whose conceit alone seemed to spur superlatives (I bought it). It was a weird place, having moved from street hustler to corporate hustler, young punk to big wig, it's not hot to rap about white collar crime and celebrity status would put a seriously reasonable doubt on any gangster shtick so dress up that's self-aware becomes more palatable than unabashed fiction.

The Blueprint 3 drops that. The old foes, the trifling youngins, and the barely abated habit are maybe half-real, but they're also paranoid manifestations of reflective insecurity. None of the new rap is a direct threat on the Jay legacy, but he's not exactly dead or old he's just weirdly hanging around like 80's vert-ramp skaters trying street punk tricks in the 90's. Thing is, he's got it, but he wants to pay new dues just to let you know he didn't need to. And that's where the album gets its emotional thrust, the (to be pretentious for a moment) raging against the dying of the light (for lack of a better high school poetry reference).

"And as for the critics, tell me i don’t get it. Everybody can tell you how to do it, they never did it."

Jay is a celebrity, he can tell you about his life, but it's only important because he's now cultural capital, he has to commodify it for our benefit and since he's cultural capital he gets measured against what's selling whether he likes it or not. Thus the album is packaged with a foot in two worlds, the old man gaze and young gun's ten yard stare. Old blue eyes references with horns and live drums and actual autotune with synth sheen and bubblegum.

"Holdup, this shit need a verse from Jeezy… ay! I might send this to the mixtape Weezy"

Which is what makes DOA or Death of Autotune so funny. He's being a dick AND a goof. The same way Wayne boasted about being the best rapper alive before getting an autotune chip implanted in his throat and picking up a guitar, or, similar to old lit snarks shitting on contemporary fiction, Jay's ruffling feathers and having a good time with it too especially when the second half of the album synths up a walkway right to a historical precedent, a timeless 80's pop gem.

The album starts off hard, with an almost projected, self-purgating excoriation of high-grounded but low-minded critics who can't make the connection between "fake" worded slings and "real" textbook things, but then comes back around like a cosby actually in touch with his subject and takes to task the young kids doing what he made his career on:

"ain’t nothing cool about carrying a strap, about worrying ya moms, and burying ya best cat, talking about revenge while you carrying his casket, all teary eyed bout to take it to a mattress."

The social realism defense always only goes so far and this song has it both ways, melding outside and inside conversations, taking dirty laundry to task while dishing it too. Reasonable Doubt sounded like a cocky young corner kid playing OG, and Jay's street cred was eventually called into question but by the Black Album dude finally sounded like he'd been round the block, with his voice filled in. Maybe now he's comfortable, and he's not connecting his past to someone else's present, but he is connecting someone else's present to his past, thus this is appropriately off with the kid gloves.

"Hail Mary to the city your a Virgin, and Jesus can’t save you life starts when the church ends"

There's this thing rappers do, where hyperaware of their gruff demeanor and its inability to convey other emotions they bring in r & b singers to do the hook, thus vicariously letting out what they can't. It has less to do with socially defined gender roles (or ringtones) than a patchwork melding of respective abilities. The most heartrending version of this comes on Empire State of Mind with Alicia Keys, a totally uncynical and somewhat humbly proud glad to still be here recounting of day to day stuff taken for granted, the added significance a particularly trivial inanity like a streetcorner takes on when compounded by time and personal relation. A musing on De Niro in Tribeca turns into being hood forever, that one McDonald's was only a short stop on another booming industry, the chorus goes inspirational platitude but becomes about a perceptive feeling instead of a reality when Jay takes time from musing on his success to measure its extendability, which doesn't go as far as his sympathy does.

"I felt so inspired by what the teacher said, Said id either be dead or be a reefer head
Not sure if that’s how adults should speak to kids, Especially when the only thing I did was speak in class...Ill teach his ass"

So yeah, fuck an adult when you're a kid. You hear Jay on Charlie Rose he does the intellectual talk show thing, he adopts the formality he laughed at in 99 problems to both mental AND visceral effect, something acting like an "adult" disposes when the purpose is being civil (unless you're Hans Landa). This is where Jay's cockiness makes him great, which we take for granted because we want humility but what if he took it like another kid and ended up a statistic for a Kozol book. It's a thing where what it is highlights what it's not without overshadowing it, as opposed to self-help books that offer you a secret that hits epic FAIL when applied to reality, Jay's talking his response and the what (adults in a position of comfort merely because they made it to 40 and hate on the reminders of what they were) remains the glaring problem, the way him hitting the top in Empire State of Mind doesn't neglect those who don't.

You can take this and apply it to the album where Jay Z's the adult, and you can call him hypocritical, but again he's playing a kid while remembering he's been through the high school cafeteria before. This is more like 21 jump street. If you say you don't hear these things on the album because it's a mess, it's better said that it's messy. And everything personal is messy. And for Jay, these days, this is way more personal than that gangster shtick.

Forever Young