Jay-Z (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)
The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust
Saul Williams (Independent)
This past summer, delegates from the NAACP national conference in Detroit held a funeral to much media hoopla, for the “n-word.” As a white male, and full-fledged, guilt-ridden member of the bourgeoisie—not to mention one of those rare cynics who finds the axioms of deconstruction compelling because they’re so blasé—I don’t have the social standing or capital to speak with any inherent authority on this issue. But I will note, as a recent sociological fact, that the post-Imus storm injected a virulent strain of anxiety into hip-hop. Russell Simmons, founder of Def Jam (in a case of irony that will soon become apparent), started sounding like a politically correct, baby-boomer curmudgeon by calling for rappers to watch their language. Snoop Dogg jumped in with an absurd defense of his use of the words “ho” or “bitch,” demonstrating that he is not above embarrassing himself with self-serving and self-justifying lectures coded in gibberish.
But the production of music marched on, albeit more hesitantly in most quarters. The Indian summer was capped by a manufactured “feud” between Kanye West and 50 “Curtis” Cent in which both offered their “careers” as the victor’s pelt for the one whose record sold more copies on September 11. Roughly translated, this would decide the question of which artist would first have to produce post-retirement. But both these records fizzled: Kanye dropped another competent, dig-able album and Fiddy slumped with only a handful of zingers. They were emblematic of the rap (and larger record) industry’s malaise and general irrelevance (Kanye’s records are still consumed by hipsters; and 50’s still a ubiquitous, ho-hum fixture in da clubs).
The real battle, the one emblematic of hip-hop’s aesthetic future, came out of nowhere: Jay-Z’s surprise announcement of an album of original work that would dovetail with the release of Ridley Scott’s American Gangster and the seemingly spontaneous generation of Saul Williams’ project with Trent Reznor. Thus, it is notable that into this uncertain, post-Imus ennui hip-hop culture entered two records from artists associated with the hip-hop community that could not be more different from one another other; one record from rap’s undisputed hegemon, the other record from its enfant terrible.
American Gangster is Jay-Z’s second (speaking of) post-retirement album. Interestingly the function of this record is cross-promotion: American Gangster, the film, is trying to birth itself into the status of “classic” without having to endure and to compare favorably to other touchstones of the genre. This is of special note because the hip-hop community’s past adoption of mob flicks (like The Godfather, Scarface, GoodFellas, and Casino) has taken the form of citing and incorporating scenes, characters, and plots from those films into their records. These movies were regarded as distinct pieces of art that influenced and inspired both the artist, in general, and an album’s song or theme, in the concrete. With Ridley Scott’s American Gangster, the movie self-consciously cast itself as a reference-generating artifact. It screamed at the consumer: this is important, this is gritty, this is so “real” that it’s acknowledged by street-credible rappers.
Thus, the first cause of this record is corporate synergy. It’s a marketing plan that is packaged with its own pop-music corollary. Jay-Z’s American Gangster is the official, “unofficial” soundtrack, a parallel “history” of Frank Lucas and his legacy that conveniently validates its cinematic partner (released in the United States one-week prior). It is a coup for a self-aggrandizing rapper and, obviously, the next logical step for the genre: no need for a superstar like Jay to quote, merely, from a “classic,” he’s so hot that he quotes from the next classic. The pedigree of this American Gangster package is presumed to be top-notch (Gladiator + Training Day + Mafia = award baiting) and undisputable. The only problem is that you have to actually pay for the opportunity to see this “classic” and buy Jay’s tribute to Frank Lucas.
Think of the Jay-Z contribution as a rapper pulling a Hold Steady. This is a Separation Sunday-like endeavor for Hova. Instead of bouncing from single to single (a la the Shawn Carter series or The Blueprint), he tries his hand at crafting a set of interrelated meditations on the content of the film, the impact of Frank Lucas, and his celebration of ruling the rap world (ground that is steadily eroding under his feet).
The result, while a mediocre record, is an interesting rejoinder to the founder of Jay’s label-partner, Russell Simmons. Simmons, the impresario of Def Jam, indulged the obnoxious fantasy during the Imus ruckus that specific words (not attitudes, social mores, or economic issues) were a simultaneous cause and virulent symptom of race problems in the United States. Well, Jay’s having none of that nonsense, because, to quote Elton John, “the bitch is back.” Unphased by the P.C. 5-0’s word-purge, Jay brazenly uses standard (and yet this year, taboo) vocabulary. It’s actually quite a quaint gesture. I found myself saying “Jay-Z’s saying â€˜bitch,’ â€˜ho,’ and, of course, that n-word like it’s the â€˜90s again.”
Quite the victory, right?
And that’s exactly my point of contention with the experience of listening to American Gangster: we’ve heard this story before, over and over, and, even from Hova himself. It just doesn’t matter anymore. Given the recent brush with the speech nannies, it’s still important to maintain that grown-ups have to face the fact that words are given meaning in the context in which they are used, not in any sort of imagined “essential” definition they have. With so much at stake, the “King of New York” pose of criminality is boring. There’s nothing novel or particularly interesting, about (another) rapper (again) working the ins-and-outs of the story of an opiate fiefdom. Sure Jay-Z’s take on it will always have solid cuts (the highlights here include the first single, “Roc Boys,” as well as “Success,” featuring Nas, “Fallin,’” and the smoking Neptunes’/Clipse-ish “Blue Magic”), but American Gangster is a disappointing product because the concept is so utterly limp and perfunctory. Quite unlike the object of its adoration— Frank Lucas, who bragged about the purity and potency of his China White—this junk’s been stepped on.
On the other hand, Saul Williams’ The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust (http://niggytardust.com/) is laced with hair-raising vibrancy and urgency. It’s so aggressive and such a head-trip that I feel intimidated even writing the title of the record down on paper (little less saying it out loud; and God help me I’ll never list it on my Facebook playlist). Produced by Trent Reznor (billed by Williams as the most hands-on assistance Reznor has provided to a non-Nine Inch Nails project since his work on Antichrist Superstar) the record sounds unlike any “urban” project released this traditional side of Madlib.
The album presents itself, via title, as a minstrel-show-meets-Ziggy-Stardust extravaganza (and just incase you’re curious, the reference is to the David Bowie classic, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars). In Bowie’s 1972 record the Ziggy character was an alien and rock star that collapsed under the weight of his excessive lifestyle. Williams offers “liberation” in lieu of “fall,” but it’s not clear what type of work the term “liberation” is doing in Williams’ system. Politics, probably? Maybe liberation of the rap game? I’m still not sure.
But Williams’ Niggy Tardust is a fearsome and exhilarating journey that defies both ideological and musical categorization. Perhaps Williams’ ideological position is as amateur and naÃ¯ve as Mos Def’s. And I defy any well-read, skeptical person to listen to Def’s incoherent, crackpot political tirades and not find themselves cringing with embarrassment or rolling their eyes.
The interior tracks, starting with the Public Enemy samples of “Tr(n)igger” and ending with “WTF,” are the gristly, pulsing heart of the record. In this six-song stretch the concept of a hip-hop album is pushed, shoved, rejected, and reborn. I know this sounds grandiose, but to be completely honest, the first few times I cycled through these songs I felt compelled to turn the volume on my iPod down, just so no one around would hear. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing: tripped out images (“Hail Mary, mother of God/Got your whole host of angels shufflin’ in my iPod”) embedded in deep grooves and hip-breaking beats. An intense, and successful, cover of U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is separated by mere minutes from the slithering “DNA” which is accompanied with Houston-approved, “chopped and screwed” vocals (“C&S” is a remix technique rappers have been using that slows the vocal track to the point that it sounds like the possessed voice of Reagan in The Exorcist).
Sonically, Reznor’s production fingerprints are all over the album. The piano clips and bled-out vocals are straight from his bag of tricks on The Fragile (“Skin of a Drum” and “WTF” in particular sound like a condensation of the “Right Disc” of that Nine Inch Nails record); the percussion on “Black History Month,” “Convict Colony, “ “Banged and Blown Through,” and “The Ritual” all sound like B-sides to this year’s Year Zero; and on the title track there are pronounced aural allusions to The Downward Spiral. But hearing this tandem of the African-American slam poet Williams and industrial-honkey Reznor working through such vivid and fierce themes is what transforms this record into the freshest hip-hop around. It’s a record that can hurl vitriolic indictments at white complacency (“What do you teach your children about me?/Pimp, thug, bling-drug-lord of underground decay?/How can you be so sureâ€¦”) while maintaining a rigorous level of nasty, self-hating introspection.
Williams uses all the words that many people want to forget. In the process, he cynically dismisses hip-hop excess while at the same time allowing the audience to use their affinity for beats and flow as a way to access his own great leap forward for the genre. A basic appreciation of hip-hop is all that’s needed to get a toehold into this bleak and overwhelming soundscape. From there, it’s on to freshly ploughed ground, which is something that’s been lacking the self-congratulatory, bloated rap industry for quite some time.
Steven Rybicki holds a M.A. in Philosophy from Texas Tech University. Currently, he is the Communications Coordinator for a trade association in Alexandria, Virginia and is co-authoring a book on terrorism and executive power in the post-9/11 era.
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