The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Wednesday, November 13, 2002

Rappers - hell, most artists - always make the same mistake these days. One classic album, and then they feel the need to follow it up with a double, ergo twice as good. It almost never happens. The monolithic squat that is Wu-Tang Forever stands as the most obvious example of this - you can audibly hear the aesthetic batteries running flat about a quarter of the way through CD 2. But it doesn't stop others from trying (usually the listener's patience). Has there ever been a worthwhile hip hop double album? OK, I could perhaps make an exception for 2Pac's All Eyez On Me, but even that is studded with padding - do we really need timewasters like "What'z Your Phone #" (Clinton or no Clinton) or "Thug Passion"?

And now we have Jay-Z, surely the world's most over-prolific rapper (though 2Pac posthumously runs him close), the Stereolab of hip hop, who puts out too many records for his own good. And yet the last one, The Blueprint...well, right back at the beginning of Church Of Me, I was pretty indifferent to The Blueprint, couldn't understand why such an audibly average album could gain such kudos. Well, that'll teach me. What hooked me into it at the end was Jay-Z's opulent SHOWBIZ - this was someone highly questionable who was merely doing what it says on the hip hop tin - brag yourself silly, diss all comers - but the fact was he did it better and with more colour.

Indeed, without that key element of showbiz, it's doubtful whether two minutes of Blueprint 2, never mind two CDs worth, could have been made or noticed. The album is subtitled The Gift And The Curse - so you've got it already, more braggadoccio, more token self-deprecation. Never mind token, actually - there's none of it on here, not even the faux-vanity of Michael Moore or Alan Titchmarsh. It's two hours of Jay-Z telling you how muthafuckin' great a muthafucka he is. Can you stand it?

Some of it is "standable" through the dynamics of the music. Lyrically there's nothing here which even approaches the sorry standard of his "solid water/Ice Cube" routine on Elliott's "Back In The Day" (if you have to explain a gag, fella, it ain't funny). Musically, it starts with the fantastic Max Ernst-meets-Santana technicolor guitar clench of "A Dream" which invokes BIG (indeed, samples a goodly length of his "Juicy"). Against Jay-Z's measured rhythmic acuity, Faith Evans' voice is an obtuse angle striving to break out of the structure. "Hovi Baby" is Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's "Bedazzled" restaged by Bob Fosse and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Jay-Z exults at his own mirror as an unendingly ascending jazz-rock chord crescendo thrashes itself at him over and over like a stubborn tidal wave. The sort of thing which makes you think that if he plays live he will need a full orchestra. Get more showbiz in! Get Gene Page to do you some orchestrations! Battalions of willing female backing singers! There's a sample from TLC's "Diggin' On You" buried somewhere in the debris, but Lord Lopes knows if I could detect it.

After that stunning beginning, it inevitably dips somewhat. "The Watcher 2," produced by Dr Dre, is the next "Next Episode" but not as good. "'03 Bonnie & Clyde" again enlists the Paul Ross/Joey Lawrence of R&B (as in "I'll appear on anything"), Beyonce "Grassy" Knowles, for an uninspired retread of 2Pac/Makaveli's "Me And My Girlfriend" (which coincidentally has also been recently exhumed by the increasingly desperate Toni Braxton). As sure as night follows day, we should expect a Neptunes track, and next we duly have "Excuse Me Miss." Its circulatory, hallucinatory strings are certainly addictive; the trouble is we've already heard this done, and better, on LL's "Luv U Better." As sure as Ricky Martin follows Kelsey Grammer onto the stage of a Republican fundraising jamboree, we should expect a Timbaland track, and in order not to disappoint us we duly have "What They Gonna Do," which is, pleasantly enough, slightly dirtier and more persuasive in its attack than what we've heard from Timbaland of late (as with TLC's "Dirty Dirty," his current strike rate appears to be about one track out of every ten). "All Around The World" revisits the original Blueprint of utopian soul samples set against his self-justifying "realism," and though fine in itself, he frankly did it better a year ago. "Poppin' Tags" is a semi-old school trading round of rap shots (but the triple-magnified beats therein, again, could not have been produced in '86) and its basic nature kind of works in its favour amidst its luxurious surroundings.

"Fuck All Nite" is another Neptunes offcut, and a considerably more purposeful one; both this and their "Nigga Please" on CD 2 (the latter of which I mistakenly attributed to Timbaland in yesterday's TLC piece; apologies) are definite highlights, and both achieve the feat of outdoing Timbaland at his "new" trick (i.e. fuzzed-up multilayered Numanoid basslines). However, by the time we get to the laughable "I Did It My Way" (guess what it samples?), we are exhausted and wish that some of Gabriel Oak's sturdy humility could perforate the armour of Jay-Z's self-assurance.

Alas, there is a second CD to go through, and the standard demonstrably dips; there are far too many things which should have stayed on the cutting room floor; indeed several tracks here seem to indicate a wish to be Eminem. "Diamonds Are Forever" recasts "Square Dance" without the politics, playfulness or punctum; "Meet The Parents" IS "Cleaning Out My Closet." And who would have thought that H-to the O-to the V-to the A would be reduced to hiring out Lenny Fucking Kravitz for a, ahem, rock-out entitled, double ahem, "Guns & Roses"? Over this latter it is best to pass in disrespectful silence.

"U Don't Know (Remix)" certainly gains added punctum from the contributions of M.O.P., but that's all that it does. We've already heard this. Another Timbaland effort, triple ahem, "2 Many Hoes" utilises an Eastern flavour! Well, we've never heard that before, already! "A Ballad For The Fallen Soldier," a third Neptunes track, is moderately alluring but most interesting in its musical parallels to Timberlake's ballads like "Take It From Here." The latter group of songs, I think, work better, as uncertainty (even fake, manufactured uncertainty) will always charm more than a sudden late onset of humility from an artist for whom arrogance is his vitamin B. Jay-Z needs his arrogance to survive, to stay up there. It's his selling point, his bread and bullets.

There is, however, in the penultimate track, an absolute killer of a groove, perhaps the funkiest one on the whole record. Alas it is called "Bitches & Sisters," and while it is rubberneckingly fascinating to hear Jay-Z contort himself into differentiating between the two, quadruple ahem, groups of females, protesting that, of course, some of his best friends are "sisters," the music smashes into your living room like a neurotically-programmed JCB. A great cliff of brass, endlessly fanfaring (the influence of Justin Warfield's divine "Fisherman's Grotto"?), propels the track smartly along the 2:45 of its duration. This would make a smashing pop single, but stick to fascination over meaning while you're revelling in it; it's the only way to stay sane in his world.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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