"Fo'Shizzle my Nizzle." These were the words the dribbled out of the mouth of the Rev. Jesse Jackson as he "graced" the stage at the recent Source Awards. Jackson was on hand the present the "Sportsman of the Year" award to Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. Although my colleague Michael Eric Dyson described Jackson's appearance as evidence of his "continuing relevance to our nation, especially black youth" in the pages of the Chicago Sun-Times, Jackson's appearance smacked of the kind of political opportunism that has dogged his reputation for much of his public career. While Jackson's blatant opportunism has often been indefensible, he can never be accused of misreading public opinion, whether it be as the skeptic looking askance at the 2000 election results or recognizing the commercial brilliance of a hip-hop artist like the self-described "J-hova", that "Nigga Jigga", the hustler Sean Carter, or more plainly the commercial phenomenon known as "Jay Z". Opportunist yes, but the good reverend knows a hustler's talent-game recognizing game. "Fo' Shizzle My Nizzle" is of course a lyric taken from "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" the lead single from Jay Z's latest release The Blueprint.
"Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" encapsulates Jay Z's brilliance as a commercial artist, with his astute ability to read musical trends within pop music while re-animating a wealth of semi-autobiographical narratives about his life as street hustler "Shawn Carter" and hip-hop icon "Jay Z". Thus the song appropriates elements of Nelly's breakout "Country Grammar" with its sing-sing children's lyrics and with its same-same sample of The Jackson Fives' "I Want You Back", while referencing his real life drama with the judicial system ("not guilty, ya'll got to feel me"). It was Jigga's understanding of the commercial value of the anthem like theme "It's a Hard Knock Life" from the musical Annie that propelled him to legitimate cross-over artist three year ago with the release of Vol. 2. Hard Knock Life. In the aftermath of the murder of Notorious B.I.G. ("flow infinitely like the memory of my nigga Biggie."), Jay Z has claimed the position as the flagship product of East Coast hip-hop. Whereas earlier hip-hop artists were forced to "cross-over" to reach the widest audiences (see Whodini, LL Cool J, MC Lyte, and Hammer as seminal examples), like my man Todd Boyd (that Detroit Nigga) suggests, Jay Z, Eminen, Juve and DMX were on the cutting edge of a historical moment when the audiences instead crossed-over to hip-hop instead of artists being forced to water down their narratives for mainstream consumption. While this of course says nothing about the kinds of "bling, bling" posturing that has proliferated in the last five years, it does speak of a radical different terrain that hip-hop currently inhabits, as witnessed on daily doses of TRL or 106th and Park.
Jay Z has arguably been the one artist who has most benefited from this new commercial universe, but he has done so by cleverly "Jigga-izing" pop trends. Thus a track like "Big Pimpin'" (Vol. 3 Life and Times of S. Carter) puts a Marcy Project spin on southern "bounce" music -- a sound that predates the emergence of No Limit and Cash Money by at least a decade -- and the simply brilliant "There's Been a Murder" borrows from "folk gangstress" Alana Davis' Blame It on Me. But Jay Z has also been dexterous in managing the various communities where the commercial product "Jay Z" exists. Thus "Hova" the savior of hip-hop, "Jigga" the every (nigga) man hustler, and "Shawn Carter" the Brooklyn-based "hood rat" conflate into a formidable product (Jay Z) that is inclusive of the Def Jam Island distributed label Roc-A-Fella, (home of Beanie Sigel, Mem Bleek, DJ Clue, and vocalist Rell) and Roc-a-Wear, the ghetto-fab alternative to Russell Simmons' "ghetto classic" Phat Farm and Sean Combs' "ghetto-runway" Sean Jean.
To his credit, Jay Z has never distanced himself from the fact that his days "slanging rock" in the "bricks" (the contemporary revision of the PJs) and slanging units in the record industry were derived from the same kind of hustling endemic to hyper-capitalist societies . His ego aside, it is clear that there are many who find significant value in the product Jay Z, whether its Michael Jackson, who has enlisted Jigga for the remix of the stale "Rock My World", the lead single from Jackson's forthcoming Invincible or the relative legions of street vendors who sell bootleg copies of Jay Z recordings. Jay Z's most recent relations with the judicial system are of course related to his alleged stabbing of Lance "Un" Rivera, who purportedly bootlegged copies of Vol. 3 The Life and Times of S. Carter. Not surprisingly the release date of The Blueprint was bumped up several times from its original September 25th date to counter bootleggers. Days before the eventual September 11th release date, at least two bootlegged version of the disc could be had for $5 or $10 on the street.
Whereas Vol. 3 Life and Times was an overly ambitious mish-mash of producers and styles and La Familia was a digitized slice of The Neptunes' post-millennial P-Funk, The Blueprint sounds organic, with forays into the deep Soul of Bobby "Blue" Bland, Bobby Byrd, Al Green, David Ruffin and the Psychedelic Funk of The Doors. While the most recent efforts by "Hova" seemingly served to promote the Rockefeller roster with numerous cameos by the "Broad Street Bully" (Beanie Sigel), Memphis Bleek and the apparently exiled "first lady of ROC" Amil, save the appearance the old-school triumvirate Slick Rick, Biz Markie and Q-Tip on "Girls, Girls, Girls" and an amazingly synchronous duet with Eminem, The Blueprint is largely a vehicle for Jay Z. In this regard the recording represents the most simplistic distillation of Jigga since his groundbreaking debut Reasonable Doubt. While The Blueprint falls short of his debut's brilliance, it is easily the best Jay Z recording since that release.
On the pop-perfect lead single, "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" producer Kayne West samples the Jackson Five's "I Want You Back", building a metaphoric narrative that suggest "Jigga's" desires to get back to his roots. While The Blueprint is geared to sure-up the street credibility he earned five years ago with Reasonable Doubt, it also allows "Hov'" to acknowledge his status as the quintessential commercial product in hip-hop. In one verse he suggest that he has been driven by the need to protect hip-hop ("I Do this for my culture / To let them know what a nigga look like, when a nigga in a roaster"). Ever cognizant of his "blueprint" for commercial success, Jay asserts, "Show 'em how to move in a room full of vultures / Industry shady it need to be taken over / Label owners hate me I'm raisin' the status quo up / I'm over chargin' niggaz for what they did to the Cold Crush." The latter reference to the Cold Crush Crew, is a prescient nod to hip-hop organic roots and the reality that many of them failed to get paid. One wonder though if such astute observations about hip-hop will translate into "Hov's" creation a retirement fund for the Cold Crush and a host of others such as The Funky Four Plus One, Spoonin' Gee, and Antoinette. "Izzo (H.O.V.A.) also puts yet another spin on Jay Z's rise from the street to the board room. It is evidence of Jay Z's narrative genius that a lyric like "Hove is back, life stories told through rap / Niggaz actin' like I sold you crack / Like I told you sell drugs, naw / Hove did that so hopefully you won't have to go through that" sounds dynamic.
Fully aware of the jealousies, real and imagined that his successes have inspired-a self awareness honed no doubt by his status as the "bootlegged artist of the year", "Hove" takes on some of his NYC based competition on the track "Takeover". Also produced by West, the track features a sinister sample derived from The Doors' "Five to One". The sample powerfully buttresses Jay's unyielding attacks on Prodigy of Mobb Deep ("When I was pushin' weight, back in eighty-eight / You was a ballerina, I got your pictures"), recalling the late Easy E's use of Dre and Yella's "funk glam" photos from their tenure with the World Class Wrecking Cru. But Jay Z is even more brutal with Nas as he claims that the artist "Went from Nasty Nas to Esco's trash / Had a spark when you started but now you're just garbage." Calling attention to Nas transformation since his classic debut Illmatic with his recent appearance on Queensbride's' Finest "Oochie Wally" and general transformation from ghetto-modernist to wannabe "made man", Jay skewers Nas with lines like "fell from top-ten to not mentioned at all / 'till your bodyguard's 'Oochie Wally' verse better than yours" and "there's only so long fake thugs can pretend / Nigga, you ain't live it, you witnessed it from your folks' pad / You scribbled in your notepad and created your life / I showed you your first tec on tour with Large Professor." Unlike the one-sided exchanges between Biggie and 'Pac-unscrupulously heightened by Vibe Magazine, the on-going exchanges between Nas and Jay Z are reminiscent of those between Kool Moe Dee ("How Ya Like Me Now") and LL Cool J ("Jack the Ripper") more than a decade ago.
Jay Z delves into the realm of the introspective thug-nigger on tracks like "Never Change", "Song Cry" and the title track. Backed by a sample from David Ruffin's "Common Man", "Never Change" articulates Jay's continued commitment to the game as he trumpets his resilience ("Lost 92 bricks had to fall back / Knocked a nigga off his feet, but I crawled back"), his willingness to sit at the feet of the hustler elders ("Old heads taught me, young'un, walk softly / Carry a big clip, keep coke in coffee, keep money smellin' mothy / Change is cool to cop, but more important is lawyer fees") and his devotion to crew ("This is crew love, move music or move drugs / Rival crews get your black suits up -- I never change."). "Hov'" borrows some of "Not Guilty" partner R. Kelly's "sensitive" thug flow on "Song Cry" as he laments his failure to nurture a romantic relationship.
What is a brooding introspection on "Never Change" becomes down right melancholy on "The Blueprint (Momma Loves Me)" as "Sean Carter" chronicles the familial ties that produced him. The track is built around the refrain "Momma loved me, pop left me (pop I miss you)." Jay's lyrics acknowledge the subtle ways that his father's absence affected his self-image -- what Hortense Spillers and my homie Sharon Holland call the state of "father-lack" -- and how extended family (his brothers Eric and Mickey) and an assortment of family friends helped him "get over". Ultimately he admits that "Marcy (the projects) raised me and whether right or wrong / Streets gave me all I write in the song". In one particularly affecting segment of the song, Jay talks about his emergence as an MC ("Kitchen Table, that's where I honed my skills / Jaz made me believe the shit was real"). It us at this point of the song that the melody is stripped away leaving just a sparse rhythm track, in effect replicating a classic old school moment when the early progenitors of hip-hop developed their flow over beats on kitchen tables, hallway radiators and window sills and human beat boxes." According to Jay it is the birth of his first nephew that caused him to "slow it down", and begin to take the rap game seriously. It is at that moment of that the song's refrain changes to "momma loved me, T.T. Uncle Jay love you to death / Won't let no trouble come your way" as he becomes the father figure that he lacked. The full brilliance of the song come from the use of Al Green's "Free at Last." Not only does the song trump P-Diddy's use of Al Green ("Love and Happiness") on "Make That Money," and create a narrative that is in perfect sync with the original Al Green song (even the good rev. would appreciate a promised land with streets paved with "bling-bling"), it places Jay Z in the revered space of the "Soul Man" ethos, which has been a rare accomplishment within hip-hop save the music of Scarface, Mc Eiht ("Straight Up Menace") and to some extent Tupac.
The best track on The Blueprint is "U Don't Know" which is pure "Hova" squeezed through three minutes and 19 seconds straight to grill fuzzball produced by Just Blaze. Jigga begins the track aping Tupac's phrasing ("I'm from the streets where the hood could swallow a man, bullets'll follow a man") subtlety suggesting that he had surpassed even 'Pac's commercial status. Emboldened by the sheer force of Just Blaze's production Hov' can boast "I sell ice in the winter, I sell fire in hell / I am a hustler baby, I'll sell water to a well." The boast which parallels mentor Russell Simmons' boast that he sold fake cocaine to knowing customers, is striking for someone who has brilliantly spun the same themes over and over. In many ways Jay Z is what Russell Simmons would have been if he had some flow. With his forays into clothing and film, Jay Z has clearly set his sights on the empire that Simmons and Lyor Cohen have nurtured as he states "One million, two million, three million, four, In just five year, 40 million more / You are now looking' at the 40 million boy". Of his success with Roc-a-Wear, Jay asserts "And if somebody would have told 'em that Hov' would sell clothing / Heh not in this lifetime / In 18 months, 80 million more / Now add that number up with the one I said before / You are now looking at one smart black boy." Pure flossing. Pure flow. Pure Jay Z. Pure hip-hop.
Other standouts on The Blueprint include "Girls, Girls, Girls", a likely future single, which features background vocals by Slick Rick, Q-Tip and Biz Markie, whose "Just a Friend" -- a riff borrowed from Freddie Scott's 1968 single "(You) Got What I Need" -- remains one of the great obscure crossover songs in hip-hop history. "Heart of the City (Ain't No Love)" is a straight jack of Bobby "Blue" Bland's "Ain't No Love in the Heart of the City", which was originally released in 1973. There is some symmetry to the song as Bland and others like Tyrone Davis and Joe Simon (ask Primo about "Drowning in a Sea of Love"), are laid-backed, countrified, mack-playa precursors to the likes of Jay Z, Outkast, Cee-Lo, Scarface and Snoop. At one point in the song, Jay even utters "Take them to church", which recalls the same line uttered by B.B. King on the track "I Like to Live the Love" on the now legendary live collaboration he did with Bobby "Blue" on Together for the First Time, an album that Jay's momma no doubt rocked at some point. There are some dull spots like the duet with Eminem which seems overly contrived, the utterly stale "Jigga that Nigga", and the Timbaland produced "Hola Hovita", which again suggest that Timbo may be spreading himself thin as witnessed by his relatively weak additions (at least by Timbo standards) to the recent discs by Ginuwine and the late Aaliyah. (Though I have to admit that "Bubba Sparks" shit is hot.)
Jay Z will never be mistaken for "street level gramscians" like Common, Michael Franti or even Ice Cube, but nobody does ghetto-centric hip-hop better than Jay Z. Further proof of Jay Z's singular commercial status is found in the first week sales of The Blueprint. Despite on-going bootlegging efforts and a week dominated in the most brutal terrorist attack in United States history, Jigga still moved more that 420,000 units in the first week of the project's release. Despite these success, in some circles Sean Carter will be viewed as the ultimate hip-hop sell-out. Like he responds in "Heart of the City", "Jigga held you down for six summers, damn, where's the love?".