Personally, I blame Teddy Riley. If I were a Skynet-like supercomputer deliberating over who to send an immigrant Austrian bodybuilder (or a mimetic polyalloy Los Angeles police officer but definitely not and not limited to Kristianna Loken) back in time to terminate for their future high crimes and misdemeanors, I would undoubtedly select Edward Theodore Riley as my target. You see despite some of the genuine, thoroughbred awesomeness of Mr. Riley’s music, I hold the man most responsible for hip hop and R&B’s continued murder-suicide pact style devolution into mutual suckocity. If you want to place the ultimate embryonic blame on why hip hop has gotten so butter soft and lame (and it has nothing to do with the tightness of jeans, people) than there is no better choice than the man who brought us “new jack swing” because all that is lame and wack can be traced through his music genes to his devolutionary kin that wringing such havoc and destruction upon two of the world greatest musical genres.
Since the Great R&Bification of Hip Hop (and the Great Hip Hopification of R&B) that Mr. Riley spawned when he started lacing R&B singers with hip hop influenced beats in the late ‘80s, new jack swing has caused irreparable harm to both genres by allowing a slew of untalented hacks to irresponsibly try and mix hip hop elements with contemporary R&B elements to create an unholy Frankenstein-like creations designed to sell records to teenage girls. This has not been good to anyone. While Riley, himself, is not the biggest violator, it is undoubtedly those that followed down the dark path that he carved out for himself have done far worse than he could have possibly imagined. Much like Miles Bennett Dyson, had he known that his creation would cause such widespread destruction, he would have never combined R&B and rap music in the first place. Ultimately, I blame Teddy Riley because I blame him for T-Pain and I blame T-Pain for auto-tune…But I don’t need Jay-Z to tell me that T-Pain sucks. I figured that out on my own.
Jay-Z’s “D.O.A. (Death Of Auto-tune)”, the alleged street single, for his most assuredly ill-advised, upcoming album “The Blueprint 3”, is a “transformative” song for the artist. Granted, its song that transformative in the worst way possible but nevertheless it is a song that fundamentally changes Jay-Z as an artist but in ways that are harmful and destructive to the music. The greatest strength of Jay-Z has been his ability to adapt to the musical climate of the times. Unlike stick-in-the-mud true schoolers or his former nemesis, Nas, Jay-Z has consistently evolved and changed his sound from project to project in an attempt to stay relevant with the current musical times. Jay-Z had an uncanny knack for mining the talents of the hottest, most cutting edge producers before they became overpaid (and overrated) super producers and thus his music has been able to dominate the musical charts for going on thirteen plus years. He worked with Kanye before he was Kanye, Pharell before he was Pharell and Timbaland before he was Timbaland. The willingness to adapt and change his sound is undoubtedly the reason that he has enjoyed such longevity and acclaim compared with some of his mid-90s contemporaries. Why “D.O.A.” is such a frustrating and ultimately destructive track is that it ignores the primary idiom that has made Jay-Z so successful. He’s become a bitter hater. It is the moment that Jay-Z has gotten too old for this rap shit. It is not a good look on him.
“D.O.A.” is Hov’s old-man-yelling-at-the-young-kids-to-get-off-his-lawn moment as he lashes out against the tight jean-wearing atrocities of auto-tune (granted, something that needs to be said but not from Jay-Z) and those he sees having “ruined” hip hop with music that has a tragic lack of aggression in it’s content. Jay-Z has consciously crafted a record that is designed to be a rallying cry for hardcore hip hop that he sees to have faded from the mainstream of hip hop. This is a sentiment I can relate to, however, this record fails on pretty much all accounts.
First, musically, the record just sucks. The song uses a rather unspectacular No I.D. beat that sounds like it would be better served over Mos Def’s new record than it does for Jay-Z to be rhyming over in 2009. Granted, part of this is conceptual as Jay wants to rap over the type of backpack material that he presents as real hip hop over the overproduced tripe that is he going after over the record. Except Jay can’t rap anymore. On the record, Hov kicks this lazy, overly cocksure flow thats he’s been doing, at least, since Rick Ross’ “Hustlin’ (Remix)” and it just weak and unfocused. Lyrically, he’s treading the same sort of tired “rap sucks” waters that’s been passe’ for awhile now and coming from Jay-Z, it just sounds bitter. If you are going to tear into an entire genre of music for being wack, you’ve got to really bring it otherwise you end making yourself look worse than the music you are criticizing. This ain’t exactly “Stakes Is High,” people.
However, the primary reason why the record fails is conceptual. Why is Jay-Z making this record? He has spent his career chasing trends and staying on the cutting edge. Why is he suddenly having a problem with rappers singing in auto-tune over their records? Its not as if Jay hasn’t made some seemingly dubious record choices in the past. Let’s not forget his biggest record of all-time samples the soundtrack to “Annie,” a play that doesn’t exactly scream out bedrock hardcore gulliness. The song makes it seem as if Jay-Z is simply bitter the direction of hip hop has gone in. A notion that firmly places him into the “hip hop is dead” crowd that is populated by many a boom bapping backpacker and former rap luminaries that Jay has been chastising for years about not staying relevant including his greatest nemesis, Nas. Its hypocritical and its ugly of Jay to be making a record like this especially considering that as an executive over at Def Jam the last couple of years, he hasn’t been eager to stem the flow of this type of “soft” material. Kanye West, his most famous protege, has flourished under his watch while at Def Jam Records with music that nobody will confuse as hardcore gangsta rap anytime soon. Meanwhile, he alienated long-time Def Jam staples like LL Cool J, Method Man and Redman to the point that he actively loathe the man for his neglect to their careers. He hasn’t exactly been supporting true school hip hop while he was actually in a position to affect change. The very few critically lavished true school records that Def Jam released under his watch like Ghostface Killah’s “Fishscale” and the Roots’ “Game Theory” were basically buried and treated as tax write-offs at the expense of promoting poppy crack rap tripe like Young Jeezy and Rick Ross. Jay-Z bears huge responsibility in the way the scene has shaped itself, lately.
What ultimately makes this record so offensive is that it’s completely toothless. He spends the record lazily kicking hardcore cliches and criticizing soft, auto-tuning rappers but other than a half-hearted jab in T-Pain’s direction, he doesn’t call ANYBODY out for doing this. If Jay-Z really wants to make a statement, he would call out the artists he feels is ruining hip hop with their lack of aggression instead of making fun of their tight jeans and their brightly colored clothes. He even manages to make the song even less biting, after the fact, by giving interviews where he says that “D.O.A.” isn’t about artists like T-Pain, Kanye or Lil’ Wayne, the three biggest stars in the genre who are using auto-tune. He even spends a good portion of the song praising Kanye, DJ Khaled and Lil’ Wayne as if to mask any potential backlash the song might engender from his fellow artists. Who is this song going after then? Rob Browz? What is the point of making a record criticizing rappers for being soft and then not having the guts to call anybody out? This record just reeks of Nas-style pseudo-controversy baiting gimmickry designed to prolong your career because you can’t make hit records, anymore. The difference being that Nas has the authority and cache to pull stunts like this because of his position built as a scion of true school hip hop (that’s what recording the Bible will do for you) while Jay being considering the anti-Nas does not due to his endless chasing of the pop zeitgeist and the dollars that follow with it. It just comes across as the ultimate in hypocrisy. This is sub-50 Cent style stuff because at least, Curtis has the balls to call people out by name for material, he thinks is weak.
“D.O.A.” is the nadir in Hov’s career, a moment that is far lower and more embarrasing than any of his early career missteps like “(Always Be My) Sunshine” or “I Know What Girls Like.” This is Jay-Z’s “You Owe Me” moment. This is a song that fundamentally betrays his legacy as an artist and shifts his position from an artist that is consistently an advocate for the new and innovative in hip hop and places him firmly in the backpack territory. Congratulations, Jay-Z! You are finally rapping like Common Sense after all these years.