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By Erik Hage

Back in the day (1928), one of my favorite old-school lyric-droppers, William Butler (aka W.B.) Yeats, (non)rhymed, “That is no country for old men. The young/In one another’s arms, birds in the trees/—Those dying generations—at their song.” You have to think that Yeats was expressing a general sense of dread and anxiety that Jay-Z and Mariah Carey should be feeling these days—Mariah perhaps more than Jay, as Hova’s keen business acumen and networking skills have continually staved off his extinction.

The latest component of his integrated marketing plan for The Blueprint 3 is courting the Pitchfork-reading indie-rock hipsterati by attending a Grizzly Bear concert and then espousing to MTV, in a grandiose statement that reminded me of Rocky’s anti-Cold War speech in Rocky IV, “The thing I want to say to everyone [is that] . . . what the indie-rock movement is doing right now is very inspiring. These concerts, they’re not on the radio, no one hears about them, and there’s 12,000 people in attendance . . . so it will force hip-hop to fight to make better music, because it can happen, because that’s what rap did to rock.” (I’m sure Jay told Beyoncé—he drops the acute accent around the house, so it sounds “like bee-YAWNsss”—“Dress down so we blend.”)

This is not new information, but a whole lot better of an idea than that collaboration with Linkin Park—or the one with Coldplay’s Chris Martin. (Right now, Jay-Z is playing Beatles Rock Band and lightbulbs are going off everywhere.) In fact, only weeks ago, a “news” story reported that Jay-Z was envious of Martin’s yoga skills. Apparently, Jay-Z has decided that the new business model involves steering away from beefs and toward ingratiation. (Flattery is the new beef—even if it’s weird flattery, apparently.) The thing we can’t forget, however, is that beyond his 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt, and the first of the Blueprint albums (2001), Hova primarily makes woefully mediocre (to outright bad) albums that are frankensteined together to the tune of many zeros and producers such as Kanye West and Timbaland. And let’s not forget that he calls himself “Hova” because it’s short for Jehovah. (And we condemned Sting for the Tantric thing. Shame on us.)

But beyond currying favor with indie rockers, Hypa is up to the same old music model, with West taking the lion’s share of tracks and Timbaland claiming a few on The Blueprint 3, an album full of misfired intentions. This becomes apparent on the opening track, “What We Talkin’ About,” which tries to remain a rap song while glomming onto the recent synth-pop revival in alternative rock. The track even features alt singer Luke Steele (Empire of the Sun, Sleepy Jackson).

A more hip-hop-integrated synth bed fuels “Thank You,” making it more palatable, but elsewhere huge yawners erupt out of nowhere, especially the wannabe expansive hometown anthem “Empire State of Mind,” an arena-sized, 500-pound pile of horse dung and fakery that even Alicia Keys’ Liza Minnelli-tweaked chorus can’t lift toward the sky. Perhaps Jay’s only compelling moment is his railing against the already widely railed against Autotune on “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune).” It’s not the fact that he’s condemning the popular pitch-correction tool, but the fact that he stoops to lyrics like “This ain’t for sing-along/This is Sinatra at the opera, bring a blonde/Preferably with a fat ass who can sing a song.”

Of course there is some downright warranted griping about Auto-Tune, especially when a vocalist of Mariah Carey’s caliber suddenly turns to that . . . thing just to fit in as she does on Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel. (I envisioned the highest of her seven octaves either breaking the machine, or summoning all of the dogs in the neighborhood to course into the studio and rip the damn thing apart.) “More Than Just Friends” is an infectiously smooth pop-soul track with real legs, but it’s hampered by the bells, whistles, and clotted-cream production approach of The-Dream and Tricky Stewart, who herald sonic busy-ness and cleverness over a good song foundation. Even the usual buyers who scoop up Carey albums (no matter what) seem to be shying away in hordes, fully aware that she’s having a bad millennium. The album’s chart debut this week—a lackluster No. 3, below the latest from Barbra Streisand and emo kids Paramore—does little to restore her superstar standing.

This might have a lot to do with the first single, “Obsessed.” One gets the sense that—perhaps at a low-animal level—her audience is put off by the idea that Mariah, who needs them now more than ever, would come forth with a tired groove and Auto-Tune-soaked vocal. It’s OK for T-Pain, who doesn’t have much in his arsenal and lacks the sheer history of Carey, but the public can sense when a starting-to-become-long-in-the-tooth artist—yes, the hyphen is my own personal Auto-Tune—is trying to merely stay with the times rather than push their own artistic envelope. (Though why Rod Stewart wasn’t shunted into Peter-Frampton-sized obsolescence after his late 1970s disco hit “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” is still beyond me.)

But Mariah also hedges her bets with her older audience by covering Foreigner’s 1980s cup of sentimental hogwash “I Want to Know What Love Is” and playing it relatively straight. Perhaps she seeks to replicate the success of her early ’90s cover of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There.” Or perhaps she has seen that a cheesy ’80s cover is an occasional pathway to success (but since Carey once was more or less a cheesy ’80s artist herself, I’m bowing out of this line of critique on condition of cognitive dissonance). Most sad, as my editor has pointed out, is Mariah’s continued beef with Eminem. Her “Obsessed” video even features an Eminem-like stalker following her around. If you want the rest of the sordid details, Google it; I feel 10 times less wise for having even contemplated it. That stuff resides in a world that is no country for an old man like me.

 


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