Jay-Z uses his return to music as a platform against what T-Pain called the future of the music industry: autotune.
He says “My raps don’t have melodies,” and he’s right. There is no denying that Jay-Z is a rapper. There is 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 is 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 example, on fashion he raps, “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 is no longer enough to bring a new sound to the hip-hop landscape: you have to bring a brand new image. There has to be something in music no one has heard before to overcome this deficit. It is very 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 will not receive airplay anymore. We are the new YouTube culture of music and Jay-Z is not 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 is nothing short of brilliant. The effect is perfectly irritating and proves his point. There is 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 am 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 do not hear anyone clambering for Amy Winehouse or Aretha Franklin to start rapping, so why the double standard of rappers having to sing?