Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Rock & Roll &

Brag Like That

book cover

In August appeared two albums that qualified as blockbusters by the meager measure of our era. That both were hip-hop was unsurprising--half the blockbusters these days are--and that the rappers involved were very prominent could hardly be a secret. But what struck me was a rarer confluence of events: a moment when commercial and critical anticipation ran parallel. Not only are Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Lil Wayne bestsellers of the first magnitude, they are also major artists-as-artists. In rock, only U2 and Radiohead enjoyed comparable status in the '00s, and even they didn't quite match up--artistically in U2's case, commercially in Radiohead's.

Unfortunately, this new world order was sunk forthwith by Lil Wayne. Tha Carter IV eked out a sales victory over Jay-Z and Kanye West's Watch the Throne, and has its moments, as does the Sorry 4 the Wait mixtape that prepared its way, but its stunted sense of play is summed up by the T-Pain-aided "How to Hate." In contrast, Watch the Throne rules. Not that the raves are unanimous, or that the collaboration between the premier rapper of his generation and his most gifted protégé quite matches the solo albums that led up to it. But from the first minute of "No Church in the Wild"--rolling bass over strong, simple drumbeat to stealth-thematic hook and starter rap, with organ enlarging a sound whose size is imposing from bar one--its musical command is startling. "No Church in the Wild" stitches doomy old Spooky Tooth, artier-than-Bryan-Ferry Phil Manzanera, and an expostulation from a neglected James Brown classic into an anthem that doesn't so much crush everything in its path as gather it up. Before you begin to think what it means, it tells you what it is. Its pop grandeur will not be denied by any better album 2011 puts before us.

That grandeur is owned by West, who had production input on 12 of 16 tracks. It's a funkier and less ornate variant of the prog-rap of 2010's acclaimed My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, where West rescued his faltering music from his staggering celebrity. But that doesn't make this West's record. It moves too good, and that has become Jay's way. He's always been the defter rapper rhythmically; the most prominent outside producer is his old standby Swizz Beatz; and though he made his own Euro moves on 2009's The Blueprint 3, which showed haters who could count--sales, years, their fingers and toes--that 40 was the new 30, they were aimed directly at the dancefloor. So with all that established, what does this shared show of pop power mean?

Some might say that you know what Watch the Throne is before you know what it means because its essence and its significance are identical--the lyrics are shows of pop power too. Pitchfork's Tom Breihan cites its "multiple name-checks of brands so expensive that you've probably never heard of half of them," and Das Racist hype man Ashok Kondabolu proposes the Times headline "TWO RICH OLD MEN BORE A WORLD IN FLAMES" while New York's more measured Nitsuh Abebe observes, "This is an album, after all, about the relationship of black American men to wealth, power, and success." But as Abebe understands, that's only true in the long run. Right now, it's an album about two specific black American men who are closely linked but very different. Abebe explains this difference in terms of class--Jay-Z's earned street-hustler wisdom versus West's spoiled middle-class blabbermouthing. But note that when the middle-class kid is ?uestlove and the street hustler is DMX, class sorts out the opposite way. Watch the Throne is a stopping-off place for two major artists who will continue to evolve. But for now it's simplest to conclude that Jay-Z happens to be a better person than Kanye West.

Both co-kings flaunt their arrogance even by the standards of a genre where braggadocio is the main event, and neither is shy about pretending that the line of succession from Otis Redding and Martin Luther King is paved with their gold. Jay-Z's brand porn is as hardcore as West's, although he prefers luxury durables to couture, and it's Jay-Z alone who assumes Michael Jackson's mantle and then claims the Beatles' too. In most respects, however, Jay-Z is a grown man and Kanye West is not. His autobiographical tales are from the projects, not the mall. Never all that big a pimp, he leaves the group sex and coke-snorting hotties to the 34-year-old who says he's outgrown strip clubs. He even boasts that he's happily married. And while both men are too damn paranoid about their exalted station, Jay-Z exercises the caution of a crime boss while West emanates the self-pity of a blabbermouth.

In 2005, with Jay-Z feigning retirement and West acing his freshman-sophomore College Dropout-Late Registration sequence, I'd never have figured it would work out like this--that in 2011 Jay-Z would have his finger on the future while West played the fame victim. By blabbering the revolting truth about George W. Bush post-Katrina, West had even begun to manifest his civil rights movement upbringing. But starting with his Iraq rhymes for Panjabi MC and announced in full as of "Minority Report" on his 2006 maturity album Kingdom Come, Jay-Z also began to apply his intelligence to politics and let down his guard enough to express softer emotions. However dubious the dead homiez trope and the tribulations of the rich and famous, both men had a claim on those emotions beyond what Jay-Z has called "absent-father kharma": Jay-Z lost his beloved nephew when the Chrysler his uncle had given the kid for graduation crashed with a friend at the wheel, and West lost his even more beloved mother in a grotesquely poetic accident in which the Chicago English professor died at the hands of an L.A. plastic surgeon.

One could venture that maybe Watch the Throne divvies up the way it does for rhetorical purposes--that one king plays the hero and the other the hedonist, two equally royal hip-hop archetypes. After all, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy lays out West's personality disorders far more subtly and satirically. More likely, however, collaborating with the undiminished master who gave him his break just set West blabbering. Jay-Z is the most irreligious of mainstream rappers, but he's been Jay-Hova since the start of his rhyming career, restoring meanings to the word "awesome" that many believed had been lost forever.

The only time I've seen Jay-Z perform, at the Garden in late 1997, I took offense at his tossed-off "Ladies grab my dick if you love hip-hop" and pegged him as Little Milton to Busta Rhymes's Howlin' Wolf -- competent craftsman versus untamed genius. But as is now well known, the truth was 170 degrees away. As he packs narrative and metaphor, jokes and puns and homonyms, into lines sculpted with conversational microbeats and taffy-pull vocalese and held together with internal rhymes, Jay-Z's signal musical gift is to sound like he's got nothing to prove and plenty to say--to sound like he's just talking. For an example, read along with the third verse of the new urban anthem "Empire State of Mind," right after "Big lights will inspire you." Or do without Timbaland's mocking beat and sound out the opening words of Blueprint 3's lesser-known "Reminder": "All rhymers with Alzheimer's line up please /All mamis with mind-freeze please line up please /All bloggers with comments, please, I come in peace /Let's see if we can kill your amnesia by the time I leave /All mamis I whored before'll vouch for me /Tell 'em 'bout the time on your momma's couch mami." I mean, if you gotta brag, brag like that.

Just two months ago here, Dan Charnas's excellent but hedged The Big Payback led me to downplay Jay-Z's criminal history, an unforced error two other excellent books could have prevented: Forbes staffer Zack O'Malley Greenburg's unauthorized Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Office and Jay-Z's own Decoded. Though some details remain murky, Jay-Z was clearly a thriving mid-level crack dealer, and that helps us understand who he has become. But he feels compelled to watch his back and dispatch his rivals not just because he came up in the crack game but because hip-hop derives its ethos from that game, whatever a hip-hopper's firsthand experience. It's the ethos of Reaganomics babies who figured "no one's going to help us" and so "went for self, for family, for block, for crew"--practitioners of "the only art I know that's built on direct confrontation." Fortunately, Jay-Z was intelligent and centered enough to understand that the hip-hop training film Scarface was the story of a failure, not a hero--that Tony Montana's fall was inevitable. So he changed jobs.

Both books I missed amplify Jay-Z's awesomeness. Greenburg's is the easier read, full of great stories: Jay-Z the champagne arbiter, the million-dollar basketball tournament he abandoned to take Beyoncé on vacation in 2003, his Rocawear profits and Def Jam presidency and Live Nation dealsmanship. Because Charnas's book loses steam around 2000, Greenburg also makes the more telling case for Jay-Z's mastery of the music business per se--what other artist of his calibre can claim signings as astute as Rihanna, Rick Ross, the Roots, and former beefer Nas for the art form, and for history Kanye West himself? But next to Dylan's Chronicles, Decoded is easily the most impressive music memoir I've read, mostly because Jay-Z is such an impressive person.

Decoded was written with the gifted and very political hip-hop chronicler Dream Hampton, whose only credit is a respectfully extensive acknowledgment, and it's possible the prose is entirely or mostly hers. But given not just the complexity of Jay-Z's rhymes, many of which he is said to write in his head, but the sharpness of ideas unlikely to be entirely Hampton's, I think it's appropriate to credit him with the insights as well as the stories he signed off on. Given his appetite for consumer durables, I credit him with the physical object, too: $35 retail, hardbound only, on semi-gloss paper with well-designed typefaces and some 150 photos and illustrations, it's so gorgeous I wrote my notes on Post-its. Whatever you hear from gatekeepers who don't know where the front door is, I think my student Brian Parker got The Blueprint 3 right in a final paper later published in Perfect Sound Forever: "the second coming." I also think Jay-Z won the Watch the Throne game. But it's Decoded that has me wondering just when popular music has seen his like.

Decoded's title refers to its annotated analyses of 30 lyrics, which while never complete and at moments underwhelming are required reading for anyone who doubts hip-hop rhyming is its own art. But it's the tales and reflections these lyrics are keyed to that leave the deepest mark. And smack-dab in the center are Jay-Z's eight years as a criminal. His rationalizations for doing the work--that he sold sick people their medicine, basically--are unconvincing, probably even to him. But the character traits and psychological skills the work demanded carried over into both the art Decoded elucidates and the business triumphs Greenburg details: the discipline, the organizational intelligence, the card shark's eye for the tell, the unreadable, unflappable cool.

Though roughly redolent of Chuck Berry, Mick Jagger, Lou Reed, and Youssou N'Dour, these are not attributes we normally associate with our rock and roll heroes. That's why I wonder whether we've seen Jay-Z's like. Internalizing their presence enriches my feel for his music and makes me wonder where he could take it. I'd love him to explore business incident and metaphor the way he's explored his criminal history, especially if he stuck in more politics. And I'd love even more for him to take his measly half billion and figure out a way to contravene Dan Charnas's reluctant conclusion that hip-hop fortunes are still made in collusion with white corporate America rather than in competition with it. The hustler-turned-rapper who toasted "This world is full of shit" in his first video is now the rapper-turned-mogul who looks back at his hustle and sees "a culture of people so in love with life that they can't stop fighting for it." Putting those two truths together would be a worthy enterprise for any grown man.

Barnes & Noble Review, September 19, 2011