In less than a month, I've been given compelling reasons to no longer dislike the most powerful couple in Hip-Hop music.
I've put a moratorium on that dark day that led to me being a Beyonce fan. I can't stop grooving to Sweet Dreams in the car even though I initially thought it was annoying as all get out.
Now her main man Jay-Z uses his return to music as a platform against something I dislike more than all manufactured Disney pop acts together: autotune.
He says "My raps don’t have melodies," and he's right. There is no denying that Jay-Z is a rapper. There's no middle ground like the latest output of contemporaries like Snoop Dogg or new acts like New Boyz. Jay-Z is about the wordplay, the cadence, the presentation of verse that refreshes the musical landscape like a canister of oxygen at the top of a mountain. While artists like T-Pain claim plain singing is boring, Jay-Z sticks to what made him famous, "I know we facing a recession, but the music y’all making going make it the great depression."
It's a vicious rap. Unlike previous attempts to criticize the direction of the genre, like Nas's "Hip Hop is Dead," Jay-Z keeps the message sharp and simple. He encourages his fellow artists to "grow a set" and actually rap. While some of his assertions are a bit off message, at least he has an argument for statements on fashion:
You boys jeans too tight, you colors too bright, your voice too light. I might wear black for a year straight, I might bring back Versace shades
The image, this idealized style of musical presentation, is in the forefront of the industry now more than ever. It's no longer enough to bring a new sound to the hip-hop landscape: you have to bring a brand new image. It's unlikely that breakouts from the first half of the decade like Nelly or Lil Wayne would have been able to get by on representing regional sound styles. Without the latest technology to manipulate the vocal tone or the newest fashions, an artist just won't get airplay anymore. We're the YouTube culture of music and Jay-Z isn't the only one sick of it.
Perhaps the greatest triumph in the song is a musical gag built into the chorus. Taken from the melody of Steam's "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye," Jay-Z intentionally sings the "bye" a halftone sharp. It's brilliant. It's perfectly irritating and proves his point. There's a place for vocal perfection and it is not rap. Rappers are lyricists. Does that mean they can't sing? Judging by the amount of autotune and studio magic going into almost every new rap release, I'm beginning to wonder just that. Why are we, as a public, demanding musicians to go beyond what they're good at and do everything? I don't hear anyone clambering for Whitney Houston or Vampire Weekend to start rapping, so why the double standard of rappers having to sing?
Listen for yourself. I came close to crashing my car when I realized what the song was actually about. And when that right wrong note blazed through my speakers, I came close to crying.