Thursday, November 09, 2006

The new Jay-Z: track-by-track

So, the man from Def Jam America came over with his pristine desert boots and bricklayer's hat for one day only, clutching one copy of the highly anticipated new CD from returning hip hop juggernaut, Jay-Z. He had to stay in the room at all times whilst we listened, flicking from track-to-track with his own brief introductions to each of the 14 tracks. And it went a little like this:

1. Prelude (produced by Ghettobot)

Intro-ed by Pain In Da Ass, known for vocal skits on earlier Jay-Z records, the opening was intended to be a sample from a well-known Blaxploitation movie but they wouldn't license and it had to be voiced at the last minute. The track is a fine opening salvo with Jay-Z's wordplay customarily quick - he runs a lovely set of puns around the figure '38' referencing his next birthday, gun and rims. Perfect.
[Sample lyric: "There's much bigger issues in the world I know / But I still had to take care of what I know."]

2. Oh My God (produced by Just Blaze)

Apparently delivered just hours before the deadline seemingly imposed by Jay's target of releasing on the 10th anniversary of "Reasonable Doubt", rather than sounding rushed, it just comes across as incredibly urgent. Like the rest of Just Blaze's productions, horns and screaming soul samples are bent to the will of the sampler for pure sonic bravado.

3. Kingdom Come (produced by Just Blaze)

The title track started life as a hastily compiled beat for Just Blaze's MySpace page, chopping up the unlikely choice of Rick James' "Super Freak" - generally considered cursed after forming the foundation of MC Hammer hit "U Can't Touch This". So, the story goes that ?uestlove of The Roots heard it and insisted that Jay-Z had to rhyme on it for his comeback. And it's better than you could possibly expect given its associative connotations and turns out to be an album highlight. One occasion where Jay's vocals sound a little rushed though.
[Sample lyric: "Not only New York I'm hip hop's saviour / So after this flow you might owe me a favour."]

4. Show Me What You Got (produced by Just Blaze)

You know this one, its the single. There's been some grumbling in some quarters but we like it.

5. Lost One feat. Chrissette Michelle (produced by Dr. Dre)

Pretty good track and an obvious single. Marsha from Floetry was originally slated to do the vocal but Def Jam marketing requirements became somewhat more pressing it seems.

6. Do You Want To Ride feat. John Legend (produced by Kanye West)

Really disappointing croon-fest (other than the album when was the last time Kanye delivered a winner?) The track is set up as a letter to a childhood friend in prison but, as our Def Jam friend explained, "Jay don't do letters so he did a track."
[Sample lyric: "I don't write letters / Shit, I don't even write rhymes."]

7. 30 Something (produced by Dr. Dre)

Dre on typically infectious form and Jay-Z with a cheeky glint in his eye as he tries to convince the younger generation that "30's the new 20." It'll probably be a single down the line given its eligibility for video treatment in the style of "Girls, Girls, Girls".

8. I Made It (Produced by Dr. Dre)

Another rather mawkish dedication to Moms on which Dr. Dre, amusingly, appears to take the piss out of Just Blaze. Interesting to hear him playing with more organic sounds.

9. Anything feat. Usher & Pharrell (produced by The Neptunes)

"A strip club song", our brickie's hat-wearing host explained. Or The Neptunes' audition for the next Bubba Sparxxx single. A pretty lame offering for which Usher apparently recorded his vocals in a matter of hours and FAXed the track back to Jay-Z's tourbus in time for everyone to get to the pub before last orders, or something.

10. Hollywood feat. Beyonce (Produced by Scyience)

A new producer but its a old sound. Plastered with vocals of enough velocity to give your ears hemorrhoids, courtesy of Beyonce. Its all about the ruins of Hollywood and its awful addictive powers. But, really, Beyonce's chorus is as close as pop music gets to a Gloria Swanson close-up.

11. Trouble (Produced by Dr. Dre)

If it didn't say Dre here, I'd swear this was Timbaland. Apparently though, Timbaland didn't come up with anything that Jay wanted to use this time. An album highlight with a brutal drum clack and near-industrial elements.

12. Dig A Hole feat. Sterling Simms (Produced by Swizz Beatz)

In which Jay adopts a Joe Pesci-in-Casino approach to his troubles with Cam'ron and Swizz soundtracks it with more bashing of gongs than Rank Screen Advertising. Does anyone really care about this Cam'ron beef? Wasn't it all because he dissed Jay-Z for wearing sandals??

13. Minority Report feat. Ne-Yo (Dr. Dre)

Not Dre's finest moment and a ploddingly literal condemnation of the floods in New Orleans from Jay. Stick to boasting about your possessions mate.

14. Beach Chair feat. Chris Martin (Produced by, er, Chris Martin)

Well, its an odd one with fairly thunderous production, and minor piano chords performed by Martin. He sings the chorus as well, and you have the suspicion that both he and Jay-Z encouraged the engineer to turn everything up in order to drown out their embarrassment.
[Sample lyric: "Never been on MySpace"]

"Kingdom Come" is released by Def Jam on November 20th.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The tipping point

Soon we’re set to be inundated with lists. Most significantly, the all-important End of Year lists that allow those of us remiss through the year to catch up. The Christmas list at least offers us a better stocking option than the latest Abba Best Of. But it’s still a compromised process.

Firstly, magazines have to draw up their lists almost two whole months before publishing Christmas editions, thus missing out on the unusually good music that actually gets scheduled by major labels at that time of the year. (Perversely, the festive period is boom-time for good music as most of the departments in labels usually responsible for pumping out marketing-driven fodder have dispatched a deluxe edition Bee Gees Best Of and thus see their work as finished until February. So, the way is clear for something a little more adventurous.)

Then, there’s that nagging suspicion that editorial lists are a compromised business – not only subjected to the ‘festive backslap filter’ - seasonal thanks for this or that exclusive or interview granted during the year - but also influenced by the private agendas of the writers polled to compile them.

The list is also an economic way for a publication to make an editorial statement about where they’re at. Think of the two records that sit atop Pitchfork’s celebrated list of the top 100 albums of 2000-2004: Radiohead’s “Kid A” and Jay-Z’s “The Blueprint”. That says more about that publication’s agenda than a year’s worth of ‘Letter from the Editor’ columns. So, honest or otherwise, it’s a hard pairing to resist surely.

At Tunetourist we like to take our tips from independent record stores because, despite pressures that undoubtedly impact on the music they stock and push, there’s less between their ‘tip’ and the real excitement of discovering that track in the first place. The excitement of discovering something new is in the DNA of anyone interested in music – it kicks right in the frontal brain and has told you everything you need to know long before the critic has started to formulate ideas about why the track in question is a special piece of music.

Admittedly, if you’re unfamiliar with what to look for in a track you’ll need to live with it for a while, but the guys that work in record shops have already lived with all the styles of music they’re tipping and spot the winners instinctively. Arguably, they’re more valuable in the recommendation process – spreading the thrill of the new - than critics whose assessments are critical rationalisations. It shouldn’t be a great surprise that when many of us pick up music magazines we automatically head for reviews of albums we already know, ‘reviewing’ is a different game altogether.