Stuck on repeat

“As for the critics/ Tell me I don’t get it/ Everybody can tell you how to do it/ They never did it.”

— Jay-Z, “Already Home”

Sean Carter’s off-handed dismissal of music criticism is probably the only way to start a review of his latest release, The Blueprint 3. As he’s constantly reminding us, Jay-Z is bigger than all of us, with record sales rivaling Elvis Presley. If the numbers for Blueprint 3 aren’t as impressive, the RIAA is going to have a pretty persuasive case that sales were crippled by the album’s internet leak on August 29, and not just because of Carter’s past chart history. BP3 could lose a couple of tracks, but as a whole it’s damn near critic-proof, maybe the closest he’s come to recording an actual blueprint album. That’s not to say BP3 is Jay-Z’s best album — it’s lyrically inventive but never reaches the personal or emotional depths of The Black Album. But its top-shelf production (Kanye West and mentor No I.D., Timbaland, Swizz Beatz, the Neptunes and, um, Al Shux) and Carter’s flexible flow, stretched further than it has been since he matched Eminem’s pace for “Renegade,” prove commercial success doesn’t have to mean dumbing it down, even in the era of ringtone rap.

If latest single “Run This Town” sticks out on 98.5 the Beat’s playlist among the likes of Chalie Boy’s “I Look Good,” or Soulja Boy’s “Kiss Me Through the Phone,” it’s less for Rihanna’s hook or West and No I.D.’s dystopic martial-law beat than the fact that it doesn’t rely entirely on either. “Run This Town” is constructed as a complete song with a semblance of progression and purpose, instead of a minute-and-a-half of filler attached to a minute-and-a-half of earworms repeated ad nauseam — something severely lacking these days in top 40 radio hip-hop (see also: rock, pop, and country).

“D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune),” the album’s first single, is more explicit about the narrative Carter wants to write for himself as hip-hop’s savior, once again returned from retirement. “This is anti-Auto-Tune, death of the ringtone,” he says before accusing other rappers of “singing too much … T-Pain-ing too much.” The beat, taken from the jazzy interplay between guitar and clarinet in “In the Space” by Janko Nilovic and Dave Sucky, is strikingly inventive but still nearly as catchy as Pitbull’s goddamn “hotel, motel, Holiday Inn” song.

Stories of hip-hop’s death have been greatly exaggerated since the early’80s at least, and a game that’s still producing Drakes and Lil’ Waynes doesn’t necessarily need a savior, but the forward-thinking instrumentals matched with Jay-Z’s supreme swagger and sense of self on “”What We Talkin’ About,” “Thank You,” and “Off That” give credence to his claim on “D.O.A”:“ I’m a multimillionaire, so how is it I’m still the hardest one here?” Blueprint 3 is a nice reminder that some rich people deserve every dollar they’ve got.

This week’s other major hip-hop release, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Pt. II, won’t have the impact of Jay-Z’s newest Blueprint, but it won’t disappoint anybody interested enough to buy it. Cuban Linx II — the sequel to 1995’s classic “purple tape” — has been rumored and delayed so often it’s commonly compared to Chinese Democracy. But Chef Raekwon, unlike Axl Rose, hasn’t fussed with the production until his supposed opus is an unlistenable piece of shit. The majority of tracks on Cuban Linx II, in fact, are purposefully half-baked, the return to the iconic raw sound of Wu-Tang Clan’s mid-’90s releases that Raekwon and Ghostface Killah reportedly wanted RZA to produce for 2008’s 8 Diagrams.

Opener “Return of the North Star” nearly works as an overture, but Cuban Linx II is no symphony. Group cut “House of Flying Daggers” builds tension with an almost laughably economic Dilla beat — two repeating violin notes — but between Method Man’s references to past glory and GZA’s verse, a reworking of “Clan in da Front” from the Clan’s 1994 debut, non-fans should be forgiven for thinking the Wu’s best days are behind them. “Sonny’s Missing,” “Cold Outside,” and “Gihad,” on the other hand, provide the lyrical depth that the first-wave Wu-Tang production seems to call for. Like the original Cuban Linx, the sequel heavily features Ghostface (also prominent: the underrated Inspectah Deck), and once again many of his stream-of-conscious lines are the most memorable. Whether he’s describing a strangled toddler or the time his son caught him getting head from his son’s pregnant girlfriend, he’s still creating cinematic images your mind’s eye can’t unsee. If there’s a true storyline to the first album, I’ve yet to figure it out after several years on heavy rotation, but Cuban Linx II does return to that album’s most dominant themes — moving coke and stacking money — but more interestingly, the nihilistic, joyless materialism, and the inevitabilities of prison and a violent death. With the exception of closer “Kiss the Ring” the mafia personas have been largely abandoned in favor of a grittier criminal sensibility closer to GZA’s Liquid Swords, and maybe that’s for the best, since the first album’s Goodfellas routine is still being ripped off daily. “About Me,” produced by Dr. Dre, manages to sound like a highlight from Forever without sounding stale, and “Black Mozart” is one of those Wu tracks that’s too awesomely weird to dislike. Label it for fans only if you want, but it’s your loss — this is probably the best non-Ghostface Wu release of the decade.

Apparently, hip-hop is the opposite of Hollywood. It isn’t really dying out or devolving; it just needs more sequels.

Stuck on repeat
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