Not many things have a shelf life to brag about these days. You build it up, you burn it down, and on to the next thing -- at a velocity in excess of even the pop culture norm. Here today, gone later today, forgotten by tomorrow's first hint of daylight, at which time the new cycle commences.
Railing against this is both pointless and self-indulgent. But somebody's gotta do it.
Hip-hop, like Disney music, is not exactly a non-perishable food item. Its sell-by date is built in. Like a teen-marketed sitcom staring a teenager, the music eats its young, glorifying youth all the while. Few make it out with their artistic integrity intact, and most don't bother trying.
Jay-Z, hip-hop's reigning monarch, has always fancied himself as a fly in the rap ointment, a man of conviction hell-bent on taking his own course. That course has led him, as it leads everyone eventually, to the brink of 40, the age when conventional wisdom suggests life begins again, but pop culture insists is the cut-off point for pop credibility (pronounced "marketability").
In hip-hop, for every survivor like Chuck D or KRS-One, there are 20 Soulja Boy Tell 'Ems waiting in the wings with their rap-novelty equivalents of "Who Let the Dogs Out" in hand, chomping at the bit to grab their allotted 10 minutes of well-lit face-time. So by this point, Jay-Z should be put out to pasture.
Naturally, the man himself has other ideas, one of which is to release a vitriol-laced new album that proves, 1) He ain't dead yet, and 2) He can still do this better than you can, punk.
"The Blueprint 3," out Tuesday, is not Jay-Z's strongest album, but happily, it is one of them. Smartly produced by a gold-plated team (Kanye West, Neptunes, Swizz Beatz, Timbaland, cats Jay has on his speed-dial, and you don't) the record is split down the middle between tracks that signify a rebirth and pieces that scream "filler."
The simpler he keeps it, the more focus placed on his rhymes and the imposing baritone he proclaims them with, the better. Every commercially motivated move -- glitzy over-production, arbitrary inclusion of big-name guest star, a la "Empire State of Mind," "So Ambitious," "Real As It Gets" -- is transparent when posited against the grittier tracks on the record (opening salvo "What We Talkin' About," the verbally violent "Hate" being only the most strident of the bunch).
The first of these to pronounce itself undeniably awesome is "D.O.A.," which stands for "Death of Auto-tune," and is Jay-Z doing what he does best -- dissing the industry that gave him life. Jay is attacking the plethora of pretenders whose reliance on the auto-tune vocal crutch is about as brave as was donning a flannel shirt and ripped jeans back when Nirvana's "Nevermind" was the biggest album in the world.
That Jay himself indulges in the forbidden (but ubiquitous) delight of auto-tune elsewhere on the album is a delicious irony. Go ahead, call him on it, I dare ya.
Like its elder siblings, "The Blueprint" (2001) and "The Blueprint 2" (2002), this new installment finds its greatest strength in the indomitability of its creator's ego. Few, it would seem, could boast of an ego as big as Jay's, and virtually none could even approximate the skill with which he celebrates that ego in language. Jay-Z is one of the finest rappers in the history of the form. Just ask him.
So hip-hop has, figuratively at least, turned 40, purchased a family van, and moved to the suburbs, because that's where the good schools are. Yet Jay-Z doesn't intend to go quietly. He'll be out there terrifying his neighbors with some of the raunchiest rhymes and funk-encrusted beats going. What's so great about youth, anyway?
Catch of the day
Unlike rappers, hippie-rockers have managed, on occasion, to outrun ageism and the yawning gap of generational ennui. Hell, the guys in the bands look old even when they aren't yet, what with the beards, disinterest in fashion, patchouli fetishes, and insistence on learning to play instruments well. Who can tell if that guitar player is 20 or 45, anyway?
Millions of young people -- under 30, let's say -- have pledged allegiance to jam-band nation, and even more folks who actually saw Jerry Garcia still flock to shows. Hippies see getting old as inevitable, are more about live concerts than studio albums, and cling to the notion that the best music is created in real-time, never the same way twice, by people who have something to say via their chosen instrument.
So the return of a middle-aged Phish doesn't necessarily need to be something that challenges the stoner's metaphysical outlook. "Trey looks old, dude," likely was not uttered during the reformed Phish's sold-out summer tour, and one doubts Trey Anastasio is too concerned about his haircut, clothes and gray hair.
Still, much rests on "Joy," the joyful new studio album, the band's first since the much-maligned 2004 effort "Undermind," which I loved, and every Phish fan I've met since hated with what for that lot will have to pass for aggression.
Could the group recapture the old magic? Would this just sound like one of Anastasio's solo albums? Has the VW bus finally gone to the great gig in the sky? Will my wife kick me out for good if I go on Phish tour one more time? Will it have been worth it?
Marketing people don't care about this stuff, but Phish fans most decidedly do. So, fittingly for a band that has always been independent in spirit and now is literally an indie act, the relationship between band and fan is a direct one. No one is likely to make a killing off "Joy" at the retail level, but the future of Phish as the greatest jam-band going is at stake.
"Joy" is a beautiful record, but if you're looking for something like "Rift" or "Lawn Boy," forget it. The twin poles of reference here are "Billy Breathes" and "Farmhouse," the two records on which Phish became a band that could do more than simply reproduce its live act in the recording studio.
There does happen to be more than a little of the dynamic interplay between Anastasio, Page McConnell, Mike Gordon and Jon Fishman that endeared Phish to its minions in the first place, and there are some inspired guitar solos. But "Joy" is all about the joy of songwriting, which is most likely the reason that the band reteamed with the most reverend Steve Lillywhite as the album's producer.
As a collection of songs, "Joy" is Phish's finest. But more significantly -- considering that the record also includes "Time Turns Elastic," a 13-minute progressive-jam epic that has already turned into a live tour de force -- it's a confident, arms-wide-open version of the band this time around.
Hmmm. Maybe life really does begin again after 40.
The Blueprint 3
Review: Three stars (out of four)
Review: 3 1/2 stars