"Dedicated To The Winners & The Losers..." - Raekwon

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Gods Of Rap Return...Sort Of...: Jay-Z’s “Blue Magic” vs. Wu-Tang Clan’s “Watch Ya Mouth”

Its kind of odd, really and yet a true testament to the diversity and size of the ‘90s New York hardcore rap renaissance that such giants of the scene, Jay-Z and the Wu-Tang Clan, paths never really crossed. The ‘90s New York rap scene was somewhat fractious in the 90s despite so much great and classic music being produced. Wu-Tang for the most part played with themselve and their numerous weed carriers except with Nas and Mobb Deep. Jay worked with Biggie and Bad Boy. Sure, there were supposedly a legendary freestyle battle between Jay-Z and The GZA in the stone ages and also a post-incarceration Ol’ Dirty Bastard inexplicably signed with Roc-a-fella in 2003 but that had more to do with Dame Dash’s desire to escape Jay’s shadow than Hov’s desire to connect with the Wu-Tang Clan. After all, Jay-Z’s rise to uber superstardom in the New York rap scene coincided with the Wu’s fall from grace. So its kind of fitting that Jay-Z and the Wu-Tang Clan are both planning to release “comeback” albums in “November” (or in the Wu’s case Neveruary) “scheduled” one week apart from each other. Both camps have released new records lately that have had the internets buzzing but which one is better and which is one is ultimately going to be the better record. Needless to say, one of these upcoming albums is needed more than the others.

When Jay-Z “retired” in 2003, despite the fact no one really believed that he was actually retiring, it did seem liike he got the proper send-off. “The Black Album” in some respects seemed like the perfect farewell to such an important artist in the genre. The album was a commercial and artistic success filled with triumphant celebratory uptempo bangers (Yet, again. That word. Ugh.) and feel good mid tempo farewell jams. The irony of it was that despite all the hoopla surrounding Jay’s retirement was that we really didn’t need to hear anymore, Jay-Z albums, anymore. He already peaked two years prior to that as an artist with “The Blueprint” so “The Black Album” really felt that this was the album that he should leave hip hop on. He had long tired out the cool, calculating drug kingpin persona he crafted on “Reasonable Doubt” and had perfected by “The Blueprint” and had firmly made the transition to Corporate CEO and middle age. So when “Kingdom Come” was announced out of the blue last year, I was one of the few people in the world that was not excited. Jay-Z as shown in his numerous guest verses in post-retirement years had shown a consistent downgrade in flow, delivery and lyricism and stories that the album was recorded in little over a few weeks just screamed fourth quarter cash-in record. Needless to say, I was right. Other than a few records on “Kingdom Come” like the title track, “Lost Ones”, “Trouble”, and “The Prelude”, everything on the record feels like half finished filler rushed to meet a deadline. Even at the ripe age of twenty four, I don’t necessarily have a problem with a record that explores the many nuances of growing old in a genre as notoriously youth obsessed as hip hop but “Kingdom Come” sounds extremely rushed and half thought. “Anything” (not to be confused with “Anything”) just may be the worst song that Jay-Z ever recorded if not for the existence of “Sunshine” and “Hollywood” is so bad, its show tunes. If anybody tells you that “Kingdom Come” is not the worst Jay-Z album by a wide margin than don’t take anything they say about hip hop seriously.

After all that was said and done about his last album, its understandable that Jay-Z would want to wash the bad taste out of his fan’s mouths. As I have mentioned before in my 50 Cent post from last week, if Jay-Z is one thing, he is a savvy observer of hip hop trends. Jay-Z has always been able to stay on the cutting edge of hip hop by keeping his ear glued to the street and listening for the hottest trends in hip hop which is why he’s been able to maintain a level of longevity and dominance thats been unheard of in hip hop outside of James Todd Smith. Jay-Z, realizing that a major part of the mediocre level of success that “Kingdom Come” had was because that Jay had strayed from his classic kingpin formula, has decided to make an album inspired by and with the same name with the upcoming Ridley Scott gangster epic, “American Gangster”. Personally, for me I found this news to be even less exciting than when I heard of the existence of “Kingdom Come.” Shortly after the album’s existence was announced last week, the first single “Blue Magic” was released to the public and my opinion on the song is deceptively mixed. “Blue Magic” isn’t a bad song per se but its the direction the song is going in that leads me to believe that “American Gangster” might be the worst idea that Jay-Z has had yet. First off, “Blue Magic” which is fittingly produced by The Neptunes and sounds like a weird cross between Hell Hath No Fury era Clipse and Rakim’s “My Melody” if interepted by Young Jeezy. On “Blue Magic,” we find Hov employing a Rakim-esque whisper flow and rhyming about making crack. Greeeeaaatttt! In the last few years, there has been no particular trend in hip hop that has annoyed me more than crack rap. Crack rap (not to be confused with mafioso rap pioneered by Raekwon, Ghost and yes, Jay-Z himself) can be loosely defined as rappers with little to no imagination dedicating entire albums on the art of selling cocaine by employing cheesy one liners comparing cocaine to white girls or something equally insipid. Now, there has been great art produced out of this genre but it has been extremely fleeting (The Clipse are the only known act who has successfully made great music with such dumb ass material. Consider it an anomaly.) so if Jay-Z is going to make a crack rap album consider me off the boat. “Blue Magic” for what it is, actually is halfway decent. The Neptunes, for once, have brought their A game and Jay-Z is at least attempting to not rap about his 401k for once. The problem is that its tolerable despite itself. Jay-Z’s formerly vaunted lyricism has downgraded to at times an almost Jeezian level. At one point in the record, he actually says with a straight face “The D.A.’s trying to indict me/I got fishscales in my veins like a pisces.” Somewhere Jaz-O just threw up in his mouth. Some critics have been calling “Blue Magic” a return to form but to me, “Blue Magic” seems almost like a desperation move to connect with a younger audience more obsessed with Young Jeezy and his adlibs than Ghostface and his nuance. I’m not sure Jay-Z has enough gas in the tank as a rapper to make “American Gangster” anything other than a hallow shell of “Reasonable Doubt.”

Unlike Jay-Z, Wu-Tang Clan never got the proper exit they deserved. “Iron Flag” released shortly after “The W” and in the wake of 9/11 seemed as almost an afterthought for the Wu and despite it being a fairly enjoyable record really doesn’t feel like it should be the last Wu-Tang record. It doesn’t feel like a true Wu-Tang record in some senses because Ol’ Dirty Bastard doesn’t even appear on the record and it was released shortly before Loud Records folded which contributed to the fact that “Iron Flag” despite being an official Wu-Tang record feels almost like an obscurity or a compliation disc instead of a worthy successor to the Wu-Tang mythology. “8 Diagrams” needs to exist. For a loyal Wu-Tang stan like myself, we need closure on the Wu as a group. “8 Diagrams” needs to be classic because after six years of waiting for Wu-Tang to get their shit together if they ever to hope to make anyone care about them ever again, it has to be. And if its any indication, the recently released street single, “Watch Ya Mouth”, feels like it could be.

First off, the best part of “Watch Ya Mouth” is that it brings the menace back to the Wu-Tang Clan sound. If the biggest flaw in the post-Forever albums is that “The W” and “Iron Flag” both lost their sense of menace and grit which is a major part of why people fell in love with Wu-Tang in the first place. The albums sounded way too clean and polished plus its very hard to be scared of the Wu-Tang when they are dressing up like caveman and cheesily flying around fighting ninjas. “Watch Ya Mouth” with its rumbling bass and strings brings a sense of menace to the proceedings that help to re-establish what made the Wu-Tang great in the first place. A lot of people have been complaining about the chorus but I love the way the chorus begins to melt into the bass and become of the guttural rumble of the song when Masta Killa is telling us to “watch our motherfucking mouth.” It brings a sense of dread to the song that seems to say “Don’t forget who the fuck we are! We are the motherfucking Wu-Tang Clan! You Best Protect Ya Neck, kid!” Its thrilling to hear a few of the greats get back to their signature sound after such a long hiatus. The song conceptually doesn’t string too far from their proven formula but for the most part their fans want their formula of razor sharp lyrics and gritty hardcore production. The Wu-Tang have always been stronger as a unit anyway. With the exception of Ghostface and possibly Raekwon, time has passed them as a singles artists but we all seem to forget that people still love the Wu-Tang as a group. However, if "8 Diagrams" sounds anything like this record than you can count on one happy fan.

The paradox of being a successful artist for so long is that ultimately whatever you do, you are going to displease and lose some of your fans. Pop music stardom is a fickle thing. It is so image conscious and dependent on the zeitgeist that its hard to maintain the same level success that you've always had. Jay-Z has managed for the most part to stave off the artists' inevitable fall from grace by staying ahead of the trends and reinventing his image as a globe trotting playboy C.E.O. while the Wu-Tang have managed to keep an extremely loyal but much smaller fan base by sticking with a proven formula. The Wu-Tang and Jay-Z represent almost complete polar opposites attitude about hip hop music but November could be the month we get the final swan songs for both of these storied artists. While I'm personally trying to reserve my enthusiasm for fear of another "Kingdom Come" fiasco, I'm secretly hoping that for at least one month, I can forget hip hop's bloated festering carcass. Suuuuue!


T.R.E.Y. said...

coupla things.

first of all, i share your skepticism about what the tone of this album's gonna be like based on "Blue Magic," even though i think it's a good song. are you talkin' Neptunes lately though, or Neptunes in general? cuz i like Pharrell's beat here but i seem to be one of the few people who likes a lotta their flashy shit. Neptunes-minus-Chad has been hit-and-miss lately but i actually like Pharrell's solo album. i'm just crazy i guess.

secondly...you diss "Anything" and say "Trouble's" one of the good songs on there?? c'mon now. "Trouble's" got to be the most grating Dre beat i've ever heard. i'll admit "Anything" is probably the worst 'Tunes beat for Hov outside of "Change Clothes" but i actually kinda like it (this is where i say no homo i think.) even though Pitchfork correctly pinned it as sounding like somethin' outta Legend of Zelda, lol.

i think KC's good for the first half or so, but Vol. 1'd be my pick for the absolute worst Hov album. that album just screams laziness, in production and in how off his flow is. it kinda bugs me that that's become the consensus "underrated" Hov album while everything else between RD and BP gets shat on.

last but not least, i wanna hear Timbaland lace at least one beat for Hov again on AG. that'd definitely increase its "pickupability" for me (although i'd be buying even if it got the worst reviews of his career.) if he does though it better not be some "i can get away with giving you leftovers cuz i'm Timbaland bitch" Redman/Fabolous shit.

DocZeus said...

I may be the extreme minority but I actually like Dre's work on KC. Its some of the rare Post-2001 work that I really like from Dre.

As for Vol. 1 being worse than Kingdom Come. C'mon now. Vol. 1 maybe unfocused and sound as if its confused on whether it wants to be a Puffy album or Reasonable Doubt Part II but the best material on that record (Where I'm From, Streets Is Watching, A Million And One Questions, Friend Or Foe '98, You Must Love Me) is so head and above anything on KC its not even funny.

T.R.E.Y. said...

i like "30 Something" and to a lesser extent "Lost One," but those synth noises on "Trouble're" just awful. i've mentioned it elsewhere but i think Dre either needs to bring back Mike Elizondo and Scott Storch to work with him, or bring in new people to switch up his sound again 2001-style. the last album he's been consistently dope on is Busta's Big Bang. his stuff on Snoop's album wasn't bad either i guess.

i'll give you "Million and One" and to a lesser extent "Streets Is Watching" (no "Who You Wit?") and you're right about his schizophrenia there, but the other stuff and most of the rest of the album is sleep-inducing for me. "Where I'm From" and "You Must Love Me" in particular, are probably two of the least compelling "introspective" songs he's done compared to other songs he's done like that. and i can't help but think Puffy's team just decided to give him all their leftovers after giving Biggie heat on Life After Death.

"Jigga What" on repeat for 14 tracks > Vol. 1. Timbohov4life! oh yeah, we were talkin' about KC. errr..."Kingdom Come" on repeat > Vol. 1 i guess

DocZeus said...

Dude, you're crazy if you don't like "Where I'm From." I don't really see it as "introspective" song at all but more of a public service announcement about how gully Marcy is.

T.R.E.Y. said...

i think i've just been brainwashed by flashy bling-blingin' Hov. i can't appreciate the griminess!

abrupt change of subject -- at the risk of sounding blasphemous, are there any Wu-related albums you'd suggest to convert me as someone who a) doesn't care much for their debut, b) likes parts of Liquid Swords, c) doesn't really like Ghostface's voice, and d) couldn't get into Cuban Linx (don't murder me please.) i'm just thinkin', cuz these're all early-period Wu albums, maybe RZA developed a new aesthetic later that i'd appreciate more? i really like the orchestral sound of a handful of Liquid Swords as opposed to the more "dirty" sound on a bunch of Cuban Linx so maybe that'd help.

again, apologies if this comes across as sacrilegious, cuz i'm pretty sure you've said Enter and Cuban are two of your favorite albums

Christopher said...

Cosign this post.


DocZeus said...


So you don't like Ghost, don't care for 36 Chambers, and couldn't get into Cuban Linx? Wow, are you reading the wrong blog?! Just Kidding.

Hmm, if you didn't like 36 Chambers (Seriously, dude?! Seriously.) than I'd stay away from Tical and Return To 36 Chambers because both are extensions of dirty, rough 36 Chambers sound especially Return to the 36. But if you'd like the orchestral sound of Liquid Swords than you might happen to like Wu-Tang Forever, The W and Iron Flag. They all have a fuller, more melodic and cleaner sound than Wu-Tang but still expand on darker themes that made Wu-Tang great in the first place. I was too young to get into 36 Chambers when it first came out so I caught on with Wu-Tang Forever so that for me was always the jumping point.

T.R.E.Y. said...

LOL@the double "seriously!?" parentheses. that cracked me up.

you know i could see Ghost possibly being an immersion thing. i mean when i first heard Dedication 2 i was amazed that people could actually tolerate Weezy's voice for extended periods of time, but i eventually learned to appreciate how weird he sounds. i'm not so sure though. Ghost and Wayne can both sound whiny but it's definitely different whine genes.

though if any of Ghost's earlier albums have some of that more melodic RZA sound you're talkin' about that could possibly go a long way.

txcaddyking said...

I cannot say what is the worst Jay album, since I skipped everything between Vol 2 & The Black Album. I thought Vol 1 was a decent follow up to the classic RD. I think it was too big of a change for alot of people to not think he sold out after one album.

As for the Wu, 36 Chambers will always be that album. Most of the members were successful on their own, which is a rarity. I think they lost something on Wu Forever that they did not get back. Maybe I am someone who always thinks the first is the best because of the newness of it.

T.R.E.Y. said...

dude, you're missin' out if you skipped that many Hov albums. the two Blueprints are excellent.

i really like Vol. 3 too but i think i'm in the minority there. but then i'm in the minority on the second BP too, so