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Last Of the Rhyme Gods

Jay-Z s Blueprint for hip-hop heroics.

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If blues-based rock-and-roll has an archetypal performer — a lone young man from the rural South, guitar in hand, aka “Johnny B. Goode” — then hip hop has a similar core figure: a young black male from New York City, mic in hand. Hip hop’s a lot more diverse than that now: Female MCs are major players; the music’s East Coast base expanded first to the West Coast then to the South and (most unlikely) the Midwest; white MCs, once a dubious novelty, are now free to be judged by the content of their creativity. But whether you locate the roots of the art in the boogie- down Bronx or the Queensbridge projects, hip hop is still a New York City sound, and that archetypal city’s scion is still the truest embodiment of the form.

Over the music’s now more than 20-year history, only a handful of artists have earned this exalted position at the music’s center: There was Treacherous Three grad Kool Moe Dee and his young arch rival LL Cool J; Juice Crew mouthpiece Big Daddy Kane and microphone fiend Rakim. In the ’90s, it was short-lived prodigy Nas and star-crossed Bed-Stuy bad boy Notorious B.I.G. And now it’s Jay-Z.

These are rappers’ rappers, men for whom genre lexemes like “flow” and “skills” were invented. A hungry young lion from Brooklyn, Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter seized the rap throne after Notorious B.I.G.’s 1997 murder with the most undeniable vocal flow since Rakim. Jay-Z raps with conversational charisma, his buttery voice dropping deft rhymes with such transcendent effortlessness that it seems as if his thoughts naturally occur in couplets. And Jay-Z’s newest record, The Blueprint, confirms this skill at a time when his reign seem to be in doubt. Jay-Z crossed over commercially with 1998’s Hard Knock Life then dropped his rhyme masterpiece with 1999’s Life and Times of S. Carter. But last year’s barely adequate and unfortunately titled The Dynasty signaled a kingdom in retreat — the first commercial and artistic bump in a career that had previously been skyrocketing.

The Blueprint contains nothing as singularly brilliant as the title track from Hard Knock Life and isn’t as insistently ferocious as Life and Times of S. Carter, but it’s a strong return to form, one that lives up to the promise of its lead track — “The Ruler’s Back.” “I rhyme sicker than every rhyme-spitter/Every crime nigga that rhyme or touch a mic, because my mind’s quicker,” he raps on “Hola’ Hovito,” and if you check out the most likely competition, there’s no denying the boast.

The Blueprint was knocked off the number one perch on Billboard’s album chart this month by Pain Is Love, by gruff-voiced Jay-Z protege Ja Rule. But Ja Rule is clearly a novelty, his beyond-his-years bark now a recognizable hip-hop vocal style, better heard through ruffneck MCs Method Man and Mystikal. Ja Rule’s ear-grabbing instrument is more effective as punctuation than prose. It sounds great on the radio spiking an R&B hook but doesn’t hold up over the course of long verse, much less an hour-long album. A better bet is Fabolous, a young MC who, like Ja Rule, got his feet wet on Jay-Z’s Hard Knock Life tour. Fabolous is the year’s most-hyped new MC, his first album, Ghetto Fabolous, debuting Top Five a few weeks back and holding steady in the Top 20. But while Fabolous is a deft rhymer, his flow sounds empty and callow compared to Jay-Z, and it’s hard not to see him following in the footsteps of Memphis Bleek, another young, Jay-Z-associated hotshot who no one seems to care much about anymore.

Jay-Z is hyperaware of his place in hip-hop history throughout The Blueprint. On a bonus track, he declares himself “the all-time heavyweight champion of flow-ers/I’m leading the league in at least six statistical categories right now/Best flow/Most consistent/Realest stories/Most charisma/I set the most trends/And my interviews are hotter/Holla!” It reminds me of the grading sheet Kool Moe Dee had on the liner notes of his 1987 LP How Ya Like Me Now, where he rated then- current MCs in similar categories. And Jay-Z proves to be a fine rock critic: On “Takeover,” he offers a withering summation of the career of vanquished king Nas, one that’s effective and funny because it’s true. However much Jay-Z may want to bury his rival, he stills pays homage to Nas’ 1994 debut Illmatic (still the best album-length rap performance I’ve ever heard), mocking Nas’ “one-hot-record- every-10-years average.” Nas dispatched, he moves across the chronological continuum, declarin on “Hola’ Hovito,” “If I ain’t better than B.I.G./I’m the closest one.”

Jay-Z’s command reaches its apex on the brilliant lead single “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” a stream-of-consciousness thriller which cheats by sampling the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back,” only the most exciting record in the history of sound. Coupled with Lil’ Romeo’s more shameless Jackson-sampling smash “My Baby,” the musical lesson of 2001 seems to be that my redneck uncle Larry could freestyle over “I Want You Back” and it’d sound great. Of course, neither Lil’ Romeo nor uncle Larry boast, “The flow of the century/Always timeless” like Jay-Z, and “Izzo” is so hot that there’s really no point in Jay-Z reminding us, “This is the anthem/Get your damn hands up!” Like we couldn't figure that part out.

Jay-Z’s not perfect, though. “Renegade,” the much- anticipated summit meeting with Eminem — his only real competition for World’s Greatest MC (though Slug, from the Minneapolis indie crew Atmosphere, beats both for content, if not sheer vocal acrobatics; and who knows what else is out there in the indie woods waiting to be heard?) — brings a crucial point into relief, not one necessarily flattering to Jay-Z: We hang on Jay-Z’s every word because his flow is so tight and strong and articulate and because his wit is so quick and unpredictable. But we hang on Eminem’s every word because we know he’s going to say something.

For all the flack Eminem took last year for the misogyny in his music, the nakedly acknowledged fear and (self-) loathing at the center of his woman problems seemed a lot more honest and culturally compelling than the callous “love ’em, leave ’em, I don’t trust or need ’em” ethos Jay-Z flaunted so nonchalantly on the smash “Big Pimpin.” People despise Eminem because he despises himself and because he throws the ugliness in our face. He’s a little antisocial twerp who spoils the party. When he exposes the terror and brutality that is wrapped up in misogyny by fantasizing about killing his wife in a bit of unpleasant primal-scream pop, people line up to boycott. When Jay-Z walks all over women, the same people head to the bar for more Cristal. His arrogance is charming, and the assurance saves him. Like Frank Sinatra — another much-loved womanizer — before him, he’s pop’s Teflon Don.

Indeed, Jay-Z’s effortless arrogance is such a turn-on that it railroads over what could be an album full of quibbles — like how the soul samples here seem to connect the record aurally to a period of black pop marked by street-level community and solidarity, but if you listen closer, these references are more often put to the service of self-aggrandizement. Lesser MCs might draw critical wrath for such sins, but Jay-Z seems thoroughly beyond such niggles.

The startling flow of great MCs like the justly worshiped Rakim, Nas (at least for the length of Illmatic), and Jay-Z is hip hop’s truest claim as the new jazz — much more so than horn samples on a Tribe Called Quest record. But though this particular stripe of vocal virtuosity may well be hip hop’s core musical value, in truth it’s rarely the deciding factor in what makes a great hip-hop record. Hip-hop purists may scoff at the following assertion, but lesser MCs make better records all the time: Sometimes this is the fruit of a strong, pop-oriented songwriting sensibility (Coolio, Naughty By Nature, PM Dawn). More commonly, it’s the result of a provocative conceptual framework backed by groundbreaking sonics (The Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, The Fugees, Outkast).

Jay-Z’s music has a little of the former, none of the latter. He’s a vocal genius, pure and simple, not a revolutionary. He’s a hip-hop Sinatra or Bing Crosby (and says as much in “Hola’ Hovito” — there goes Jay-Z rock critic again): suave, masculine, ultimately conservative. But his voice is one that will still be marveled over long after he’s gone. Other contemporary hip-hop artists — Eminem and Outkast at the multiplatinum level, Atmosphere and the Coup scheming below — may excite us more, take us to newer places, make us think harder, and ultimately make greater records. But Jay-Z is still the archetype. Indeed, the ruler.

You can e-mail Chris Herrington at herrington@memphisflyer.com.


local beat

by CHRIS HERRINGTON

The Memphis Troubadours Acoustic Showcase, a popular song- swap that has been a Tuesday night staple at the Flying Saucer Draught Emporium for the last two years, has changed addresses. The Troubadours can now be heard Wednesday nights at The Lounge at the Gibson Guitar Factory. The impressive new room is much more music-focused than the sometimes too-noisy-for-acoustic environs that occasionally marred Troubadours performances at the Saucer, and the move seems to be a perfect fit.

The events of September 11th continue to affect the local music scene, with more benefit concerts scheduled for this week. On Thursday, October 25th, Legends on Beale will present Acoustic Aid, a benefit that will direct all proceeds to the relief effort in New York via the Red Cross. The solid lineup of local talent will be led by two of the city's most exciting young artists, singer-songwriter Cory Branan and accomplished blues player Richard Johnston. Other scheduled performers are: Native Son, Hunter Rozen, Kaleidoscope, The Gabe & Amy Show, and Eddie Smith. Then, on Saturday, October 27th, at The Overton Park Shell, Voices for Peace will hold a benefit for the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center. The event is scheduled to run from 2 to 9 p.m. and musical acts will include Delta Grass, Phil & T, Native Son, The Green Bings, and Mark Allen. There will also be speakers from the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, the Muslim Society of Memphis, and the Green Party. According to a press release from the organization, the event is being held to "raise awareness regarding the human costs of the current military actions in Afghanistan and to promote cultural tolerance."

It's a busy weekend for the Shell, which will host "A Cry For Joy," an event focusing on jazz and visual arts, on Sunday, October 28th. Music is scheduled to run from 2 to 10 p.m. with featured artists including The Chris Parker Trio, The Young Avenue Deli Sextet, Renardo Ward, Jeff Burch, and Alvin Fiedler.

On Saturday, October 27th, the Cooper-Young restaurant Mélange and downtown's River Terrace will collaborate to produce Orange DJ Dance Party. Toronto-based house DJs Dino and Terry will spin, joined by local DJs Richard Stylus, Sean OD, B. Iskiwitz, and Brian Analog. The event will be held at River Terrace and begins at 10 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door. For advance tickets and other info, call (901) 624-7181.

American Roots Music, a four-part PBS documentary series on the roots of American music, debuts this week at 9 p.m. Monday, October 29th, on WKNO-TV Channel 10.

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