Jay-Z's "Blue Magic": Pretty Great
Blame Oliver North and Iran Contra
One of the things that really drives me nuts about Curtis is the creeping impression, quite possibly unfair, that "I Get Money" could've been something other than a fluke. "I Get Money" is the one moment on the album where 50 actually plays convincingly to his strengths. Probably not coincidentally, it's also the only track on the album that anyone seems to care about, probably the main reason he was able to do such monster first-week numbers. The track feels so easy and natural and organic that I feel like 50 could've probably just made it fifteen times over if he hadn't landed on the idea that people wanted to hear boring thug-love ballads and warmed-over club-rap from him instead. And if 50 actually makes Before I Self-Destruct, I hope he crams it with bangers like that rather than just allowing himself one. It's way, way too early to make predictions about Jay-Z's American Gangster. We've known of the album's existence for less than a week, and I have no intention to fall into the trap I fell into with Kingdom Come: endlessly hyping an album up in the weeks before its release and then being crushingly disappointed when the work itself finally surfaces. Still, at this point, I can't help it. "Blue Magic," the first leaked track from American Gangster, is great. Every time I've turned on Hot 97 over the past few days, it's been on, and I've been happy to hear it. "Blue Magic" sounds like Jay took the same lesson from the mediocre reception Kingdom Come got that I hope 50 learns from "I Get Money." Jay is almost completely back in his comfort zone on "Blue Magic," which is why it so easily trounces just about every song on Kingdom Come. I can appreciate what Jay wanted to accomplish with that last album: making a record that reflected his graceful maturation into postmodern tabloid royalty rather than continuing to revel in the desperation and violence of his long-passed youth. But desperation and violence almost always make for more interesting artistic catalysts than contentment and peace. On "Blue Magic," Jay sounds cold and hard and assured, a million miles removed from resorts and islands. Maybe Jay can write songs like this in his sleep, and maybe it takes the release of a major motion picture about a 70s drug-lord to get him into that mental space again. Either way, it's good to have him back.
The weird thing is that "Blue Magic" doesn't sound much like anything Jay's done in the past, either musically or thematically. It's weird to see him get into the gritty details of crack production, the pyrex jars and all that shit. In the past, he depicted himself as a reigning drug lord, already above that stuff. We might hear about him getting pulled over on the highway with a trunk full of illegal stuff, but we never heard about him making actual physical contact with cocaine. I guess someone's got to start somewhere, anyway. And his delivery on the track is colder and less emotional than anything he's done in six years or so. I was just talking on the phone with Zach Baron, who doesn't much like the song. Zach liked the song's heartless authority but thought something was off about the vocal take; it was too quiet, without enough emphasis or fire. Jay's delivery barely raises above a whisper on the whole song. We only know when the chorus arrives for the first time because his voice doubles up; other than that, he never breaks the flow of his cadence. I actually like that under-the-breath quality in his voice; his slick-talk sounds more forbidding because he doesn't feel the need to clamp down on any particular word, implying menace and authority rather than smashing us over the head with them. His delivery has a great little syncopated bounce, which others have pointed out that he sort of swiped from Rakim's "My Melody." Every line is packed with internal rhymes and subtle alliterative runs: "P, I repeat if you show me where the pot is." I'm sort of loath to make the comparison because it's so goddam obvious, especially coming from a shameless Clipse-booster like me, but the whole thing really reminds me of Hell Hath No Fury. Pharrell's beat has the same polished glint as his beats for that album, and Jay's delivery is similarly dead-eyed and matter-of-fact, like he's explaining the way things are to you whether you like it or not. Even the grunt he lets out after the "try as they may, couldn't get me on the hook" punchline reminds me of the yeuch noise Pusha T used to use to punctuate his best points.
But I don't have any idea what "Blue Magic" has to do with the movie American Gangster beyond its title (it shares its name with the strain of high-grade dope that Frank Lucas used to push) and the quick sample of movie-dialogue that ends the track. On my last Jay-Z post, someone said in a comment that Jay actually recorded the track for Kingdom Come, something I'd be more inclined to believe if it didn't sound so much more evil than anything Jay's done over the past couple of years. (Even his verse from T.I.'s "Watch What You Say to Me" is cuddly in comparison.) I'll be curious to see what, if anything, a movie about a 70s drug-dealer has to do with a rap song where Jay talks about the 80s crack-trade while splicing his mid-90s kingpin persona with mid-00s crack-rap trends and stealing cadences from a mid-80s rap classic and a hook from an early-90s R&B monster-jam (En Vogue's "Hold On"). In the Times article where Jay announces the album's existence, he admits that he'd never heard of Frank Lucas before seeing the movie. So maybe American Gangster the album won't be about Frank Lucas so much as it'll be about Jay's own memories; maybe the movie just triggered an unstuck-in-time moment for Jay. Looks like I'm seeing the movie tonight, so maybe I'll be able to say more definitively tomorrow.
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Voice review: Miles Marshall Lewis on Jay-Z's Vol. 3 ... The Life and Times of S. Carter
Voice review: James Hunter on Jay-Z's Vol. 2 ... Hard Knock Life