Friday, June 19th, 2009

Jay-Z – Death of Autotune

He’s got something to tell ya, he’s got something to say…


Chuck Eddy: Call him a relic, call him what you will. Say he’s old-fashioned, say he’s over the hill. Today’s music aint got the same soul. He likes that old time rock’n’roll.

Dave Moore: Not realizing that a stunt like this is keepin’ it about as real as Ben Gibbard, Jay disses the venerable vocal effect with a cacophony of…what is that, klezmer? I don’t get any sense he actually cares about Autotune, though, which suggests it’s more of an unfocused, opportunistic hissy fit than a hit job. The sad thing about it is that I bet he thinks this thing is clever, too — but it’s not a fraction as clever as T-Pain can be on a good day.

Alfred Soto: I don’t know what poor Auto-tune did to deserve Jay-Z proclaiming its death, unless he’s busting a Musicology move to rep for “organic” arrangements back in the day. Given a choice between Sinatra singing Puccini at the Met and Lil Wayne’s electronically altered voice imitating his guitar, the choice is obvious.

Al Shipley: It’s an empty gesture, but great records have been built on emptier ones. And it maybe could’ve been great, if the music or the lyrics really had the bite to match the sentiment — as much noise as it’s made, can you imagine how much more it would’ve if this were half as explosive as, say, “Public Service Announcement”? This isn’t bullshit because it’s a year late, or because it’s more than a little hypocritical coming from a guy who built an empire on melodic gimmicks ranging from orphan Annie to Pharrell falsetto. It’s bullshit because he tried to bring down the hammer, and it was ultimately as soft as its target.

Ian Mathers: I love that nagging guitar riff, I love the clarinet(?), I love how obsessed with the idea of brutality this song is, I even love the off-key Sha Na Na karaoke. What I don’t love is the way he begins every verse with the same few lines, and his disdain seems oddly diffuse. This could have been classic, instead it’s a very interesting misfire – and doesn’t pop need more of those?

Anthony Easton: Jay Z’s argument for a less formal, more narratively complicated form, and against the sort of work that we are engaging here, should piss me off, but it will be a number one record, it rests on a noticeable sample, and it is constructed as a single (and it has to be remembered that he married/produced one of the masters of this nu:pop, and he is at least partially responsible for Danger Mouse’s Grey Album, the first masterpeice of remix culture).

Martin Skidmore: I thoroughly approve of the message here, a challenge to other rappers. Jay-Z has always been as gifted a rapper as any, and this is one of his best performances, over an old rock guitar sample and another jazz sax one – it sounds utterly original, and the lyrics are a throwdown to loads of current stars. I love it generally, but it gets boosted to ten because I am completely in agreement with him.

Matt Cibula: The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend; just because I agree with this screed in principle doesn’t mean I have to love its enervated one-offsmanship. A couple good lines, but is anyone gonna jump up and go “YEAH” when it hits the radio? Nodio.

Jordan Sargent: The two concrete arguments I can draw from this: 1. Rappers are singing too much; 2. It’s making rap too feminine. This is what is ruining rap. This coming from a guy who made “Change Clothes” and “03 Bonnie & Clyde”. Right.

Alex Macpherson: I don’t really have a problem with Jay-Z emerging from his 940343th retirement to shake his walking stick at the kids ruining his lawn with their new-fangled Autotune toys – though I do wonder whether he’s got the wrong target, if it’s the softening of hip-hop that he’s concerned about. The sad thing is that no one else is likely to have a problem, either, and a few months henceforth people will still be jamming the latest T-Pain hot trash while maybe making some time for classic Jay-Z, back when he used to be good. Anyway, isn’t the fact that Jay-Z is devoting an entire single to bitching about a production trend more of an indictment of the genre than anything else?

Edward Okulicz: Oh for fuck’s sake. At least provide a better alternative. The sample is neat, but I’d rather hear his wife over the top of it.

Fergal O’Reilly: The implication that all rappers who became famous before him did so using biros is an interesting discussion point. It’s backed by a neat No I.D. beat and a melancholy refrain, and in all fairness it sounds fantastic. All the same, for some kind of self-proclaimed epoch-shattering death knell for hip-hop gimmickry it sounds a little too complacent and laid back; like shit, run for cover, Jay-Z’s back and he’s annihilating the established order! And replacing it with REALLY PRETTY SAXOPHONE MELODIES~!

Erika Villani: Jay-Z wants rappers to stop singing and return to rapping, albeit for no real reason – singing is for chicks, bright colors are annoying, you kids need to get off his lawn, etc. So he leads the way with a thumping track backed by a sample of live instruments, proclaiming that this isn’t for Z100, or ringtones, or sing-alongs before attacking a few of his more pop-minded contemporaries (and their attendant gimmicks). “This is practically assault with a deadly weapon,” he boasts, “My raps don’t have melodies.” But from the way he interpolates the chorus of “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” and draws out the phrase “moment of silence” till it becomes more song than speech, it seems he still can’t resist a sweet hook. If this is what Jay wants rap to sound like, I hope he gets his wish.

Martin Kavka: This isn’t a 7 because it’s free of autotune. This isn’t a 7 because I’m excited about the release of The Blueprint 3. This isn’t a 7 because of Jay-Z’s rap, which unnecessarily ridicules all party rap in the name of hardness, and so therefore makes me love AutoTune more than I thought I possibly could. This is a 7 because of the amazing amazing sampled track, Janko Nilovic & Dave Sucky’s “In The Space,” from 1970.

Michaelangelo Matos: Above the old-man-isms, this is what Jay thinks is a hot beat these days? No ID’s track sounds like a spiffed-up outtake from Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age, and while I still have some admiration for that record its flat rocky production was a lot of what basically torpedoed Public Enemy’s career. Anyway, the dream is over, etc.

Anthony Miccio: Last disc of a career box-set stuff, a relatively sluggish reaffirmation of previous glories fronted by a topical reference. But it’s still dramatic enough to deserve a place on that box set.

Hillary Brown: Some small credit for his ability to be annoying, one I didn’t know he had, but this really isn’t the way to burst back onto the scene: “You damn kids with your rock music and your Autotune! Back in my day, we didn’t have melody! We didn’t need melody. We were happy enough with just rhythm, and we thanked God for it.”

Jonathan Bradley: The worst thing respectability ever did to Jay-Z was obscure just how unrespectable he once was. Retirement turned President Carter into a hip-hop elder statesman, one who spends his time networking with Chris Martin and Barack Obama, but it also turned him into one of the New York old guard, and a man who, even while he continued to hold down a place on the pop charts, could no longer convincingly speak the language of the hustler without the construct of a movie. Yet the now unchallenged best in the game is a rapper who once had to remind critics he was more than money, cash, hoes. He was a man who thought nothing of rapping over a chorus from a kids’ musical in “Hard Knock Life” and who shouted out a half dozen Southern cities and signifiers in “Snoopy Track,” well aware that the cultural conservatives in his hometown would prefer him to get as far away as possible from the likes of candy paint, throwing bows, and Cash Money records. This is an artist who had such little respect for the traditionalists and their concerns with artistry that he would declare he was not even a rapper, even as he maintained he was the best alive; his boast that he never wrote down his lyrics was once a testament to insouciance more than flamboyance. Throughout his career, Jay-Z has sided with the populist and forward-thinking over the staid and regressive, and derided for lacking substance by doing so. His stand against autotune isn’t particularly brave, but in its attempt to reassert some grit into his steadily ossifying career, he position himself against exactly the kind of experimentalism that got him where he is today. And yet, while a song that so firmly presents itself as an argument cannot be appreciated without evaluating the terms of its rhetoric, its value as a piece of music is harder to dismiss. No I.D.’s production, with its luxuriant trumpets, is lush and summery, and with its snapping snares and hectoring guitar, as gritty as the project hallways to which Hov makes reference. Jay’s lyrics are as on point as they have ever been post-comeback; if only the careful condescension of “this ain’t a number one record/this is assault with a deadly weapon” were aimed at a more deserving target. But the best line still comes in the form of one more Sinatra reference from a man who’s made a million of them, and his flow comes close enough to limpid that his famed vocal control starts here to look like a lack of energy. True, Jay is one of the only rappers who can make a record an event these days, but when the Hot 97 drops fade and the Twitter chatter dies away, too little of substance remains.

John M. Cunningham: So the off-key singing is intentional, then?

16 Responses to “Jay-Z – Death of Autotune”

  1. Thanks for the edit, i sort of rambled.

  2. Jay-Z’s only been previously notable for marrying Beyonce and getting remixed by Danger Mouse? Yeesh. You’d think he didn’t have a triple-digit number of better songs in his discography by the way some of you talk. I wanted to do a blurb comparing it to “Takeover”, which is what it strives to be and fails miserably in doing so, but couldn’t get my thoughts together in time. I do have to say Jonathan Bradley’s opening sentence might the most right-on thing anyone’s said about Jay-Z’s post-retirement era.

  3. The fact nobody used the word “rockism” in their blurb for this is something we can, as a community, all be very proud of.

  4. Can we get some Kudos for Will here? Given how many blurbs he put together for this entry, the flow of the conversation – down to that killer Bradley/Cunningham one-two at the end – is superb. I think all of the writers we’ve got are excellent, but the way Swygart arranges and edits us all is part of what makes us all look so good.

  5. Amen.

    and Rodney, I was talking about his place in relation to nu:pop/autotune/remix aesthetics, not his total ouevre.

  6. anyone who thinks this is a 10/10 is honestly clinically insane.

  7. The fact nobody used the word “rockism” in their blurb for this is something we can, as a community, all be very proud of.

    Might not have been the case had they been able to see Martin’s blurb in time.

  8. Okay, but this isn’t good nu:pop, whatever the hell that is, either, and I’m not sure what this has to do at all with remix aesthetics.

  9. nu:pop

  10. “anyone who thinks this is a 10/10 is honestly clinically insane.”

    Yes, or maybe they’re just really ignorant and unschooled and can’t tell the difference between a good and washed-up rapper. Sort of like how I think Electric Feel is this great watershed record and not the rehashed 80s shit it probably is because it’s basically one of about four songs by a group of white people I can name from the last 25 years.

  11. I agree, Tray: “Electric Feel” is a great song. This? Eh, not so much.

  12. I freely admit to being ignorant, unschooled and clinically insane.

  13. I mean, I’m not even staking a position on ‘Electric Feel’ out, I know way too little about the whole “music that isn’t rap” genre to comment. I’m just saying, if you don’t know a genre, you can easily come to very mistaken conclusions about a given song in it. For example, when I first started listening to rap 7 years ago, I was really impressed by Joe Budden’s flow on ‘Jumpoff.’ Then of course I went through the whole “‘Jumpoff’ was a commercial nursery-rhyming blemish on Budden’s otherwise spotless career”/listening to Jedi Mind Tricks phase. Now of course I can’t stand either. It takes time to acquire good taste.

  14. Well I have been buying hip hop for well over 20 years, and own something in the region of 500 hip hop albums, so I am not a total novice. I still love this single.

  15. Don’t front, “Pump It Up” is a classic.

  16. No shit — One of Elvis Costello’s all-time best songs.

    Though I still like the Joe Budden album okay, too.

    Anyway, I’ve been wanting to say I pretty much agree with something Ian Mathers wrote, even though Steam is not Sha Na Na per se’: “I love that nagging guitar riff, I love the clarinet(?), I love how obsessed with the idea of brutality this song is, I even love the off-key Sha Na Na karaoke.”

    There’s something in Jay-Z’s clunky self-righteous vocal intonations that reminds me of KRS-One, of all people, though, which would bug the hell out me even if this song wasn’t sort of the moral equivalent of bringing down Prince Be. But I still think, as dorky as the sentiment is, it’s better as music than some people here want to admit.

    And I still don’t understand what nu-pop is myself, either.