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Review: Jay-Z, The Blueprint 3

3.5

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Jay-Z, The Blueprint 3

We first received proof that this long-rumored album was a reality in August of last year, when Jay-Z took the stage at a Kanye West concert at Madison Square Garden and, after unloading a Run-D.M.C.-sampling hater-barrage called “Jockin’ Jay-Z,” announced the title of his next record like it was another potent political slogan in a season of many: The Blueprint 3. Since that moment, though, the rap world has sort of gone berserk: In addition to Jay’s attempts at hipster-crossover with “Swagga Like Us” and “Brooklyn Go Hard,” West befuddled millions with his Auto-Tune concept album 808s and Heartbreak, T.I. got locked up, Lil Wayne disappeared down a rabbit hole of grunge rock and promethezine, and hip-hop radio has come to be dominated on the one hand by a Bart Simpson-emblazoned bozo named Gucci Mane and on the other by an ex-Disney sitcom star, Drake—not to mention the fact that there’s a black president. So perhaps the biggest weakness of Blueprint 3 is the absurdity of its goals, namely to be an “event” album, a game-changer, a course-setter like its namesake, when it’s obvious that hip-hop has become such a mess of micro-trends, fads, and sub-fads that you would have be crazy to try to impose order on it or pull it under your sway.

And yet if there’s anyone with the cojones to shake a scepter at the unruly rap electorate, it’s Jay-Z, and even that would be less likely did he not have the equally egotistical West in his corner, pumping him up like a Snoopy balloon at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. To this end, the album’s production would sound big even in a vacuum, as it eschews the gritty understatement of 2007’s American Gangster and minimalist teachings of 808s, recalling instead the widescreen gluttony of West’s Graduation and, in some regrettable aspects, Jay’s 2006 out-of-retirement flop Kingdom Come. Even though we knew this already, it begs saying that Blueprint 3 is not nearly as sonically innovative as the original Blueprint, and how could it be? That album was a coming-out party for West and his brilliantly honed aesthetic of chipmunked soul samples and synthesizer streaks of melody, and it rightly blew people away. Blueprint 3 is more a cobbling of hip-hop trends from the past three years or so: “A Milli”-style bruisers (“On to the Next”), Timbaland space-hop (“Off That”), Kanye-patented Eurofabulation (“Hater”), Miami yacht rap (“Real as It Gets”). Given that collaboration with Santigold and the rumors that the MGMT dudes would be contributing to the new album, there was reason to think Jay would try to push the envelope by dipping deeper into indie, but now that the record is here, we see that is definitely not the case. Jay’s beat selection has never been safer.

All this handwringing and debunking aside, it’s thrilling to learn that for all its irrelevance Blueprint 3 is actually, kind of, pretty much a banger. For the rap fanbase that grew up on Jay-Z (i.e. just about everyone), it’s an undeniable pleasure to see him encounter beats that, in the majority of cases, match his mettle, and hear him deliver, in the majority of cases, rapid-flow, rewind-worthy cleverness. “Run This Town” is the album’s keynote jam, a thick Kanye-produced concoction of dramatic piano, military boot stomps, and a glistening Rihanna hook. Blog guffawers have correctly pointed out that West runs away with the song on his guest verse, but Jay’s is no embarrassment, and he owes Kanye one anyway (hello, “Diamonds from Sierra Leone”). West comports himself equally well on “Hater,” a woozy laser-lined hallucination, and “Already Home,” a jubilant, stringy production featuring Kid Cudi on the chorus. Though the album often feels dangerously close to rote, it’s hard to complain about all these super-talents playing exactly to type, typified by the warm fuzzies emitting from “Empire State of Mind,” a glittering paean to the Big Apple with Alicia Keys soaring skyscraper-level on the hook and Jay putting on for his city.

“D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)” was the album’s first headline-grabber, and as a rock-influenced rap beatdown the song is a thorough success; lyrically, though, it fails to convince. Jay’s disgusted swipes at Auto-Tune-addicted emcees come off as petty and lazy, and the target itself is just a little too easy. Despite the near-freshness of the guitar-and-sax tornado on “D.O.A.,” the two other songs here claiming to demonstrate Jay’s immunity to trends turn out to be two of the trendiest songs on the album. “On to the Next” is a blistering Swizz Beatz production employing a repetitive vocal loop and thunderous bass thumps a la “A Milli,” and Jay boasts about the rapidness with which he chews through fashions, apparently unaware that the song itself is a contradiction of everything he’s saying. Similarly, the Drake-assisted Timbaland track “Off That” wants you to believe that Jay is already tired of the new thing you’re excited about, even though the beat sounds like an outtake from FutureSex/LoveSounds. As can be said of nearly all of Blueprint 3, these songs may knock righteously, but they are mirrors to the present and recent past, not windows into the future.

Maybe it’s getting easier at this point to take Jay’s lyrics with a grain of salt, or maybe we’re more familiar with the fact that though the man who has a wealth of wordplay at his disposal has always suffered from a deficiency of both imagination and coherence. Not surprisingly, Blueprint 3 has its fair share of jaw-dropping internal rhymes, brutal cutdowns, and the like, but we’re nowhere closer to getting a grip on who Shawn Carter really is. He’s still more interested in complimenting than investigating himself, still the guy who makes a song called “Thank You” into an orgy of self-congratulation, who fills “A Star Is Born” with backhanded applause for fellow rappers, who thinks he would be nowhere without him: “Clap for ’em, but I’m the blueprint, I made the map for ’em.” The axiom that you don’t have to like someone to love them can certainly be applied to music fandom, and listening to these songs we realize that while we continue to bow before Jay’s rhyming abilities, we think he’s kind of a dick.

Summarizing Gucci Mane’s “Weird,” the rapper’s first instance of using Auto-Tune, blogger Andrew Noz had only to write, “Gucci goes autotune. Jay-Z lost.” In terms of sales, prestige, and power, Jay has Gucci’s number and will continue to for a while, but Noz’s point—namely that the king no longer has control over his subjects—is well taken. And so the sad truth about Blueprint 3 is that nobody needs it. The album is a hip-hop feast, for sure, filled to the brim with elite production and elite rapping, but it lacks the hungriness, the spirit, and the craziness that mark a classic album. Jay’s too good at this stuff; he won’t stop and no one will ask him to. But if he continues to serve up such predictable, complacent, warmed-over craftsmanship as Blueprint 3, people might start taking his presence for granted.

Label: Roc Nation Release Date: September 7, 2009 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Chaka Khan’s Hello Happiness Runs on Good Vibes

As its titles suggests, the R&B singer’s first album in 12 years radiates positivity.

3.5

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Chaka Khan
Photo: Island Records

“I’m tired of hearing bad news,” Chaka Khan sings on the title track of her 13th solo album, Hello Happiness. The last time the singer was in the news, in 2016, she was entering rehab to treat an addiction to fentanyl, the same drug that killed Prince. Given the general sense of ennui that’s endemic to life in the 21st century, you’d be forgiven for expecting a more morose Chaka Khan in 2019. But as its title suggests, her first album in 12 years radiates positivity.

Hello Happiness’s breezy sensibility is intrinsic to its design. The 27-minute-long album’s opening track begins with a kind of mantra: “Music makes me sing/Goodbye sadness/Hello happiness.” The ebullient “Like a Lady” is punctuated with serotonin-spiking disco string stabs, while the chorus—“Ooh, you make me feel like a lady, baby/Ooh, I think I’m falling in love”—feels timeless and nostalgic. If it isn’t enough to put a smile on your face the first time around, Khan repackages the whole song again on the closing track “Ladylike,” pairing the same verses and chorus with a more up-front melody and a sparkling acoustic guitar hook.

Much of the credit for Hello Happiness’s relentlessly good vibes goes to co-producers Switch (formerly of Major Lazer) and singer-songwriter Sarah Ruba Taylor, who plunder the sounds of Khan’s 1970s and ‘80s output for a mélange of styles and textures, from the fat Bernie Worrell-like synthesizers and fuzz-laced guitars of “Don’t Cha Know” to the echoing dub effects of “Isn’t That Enough.” Sometimes the production steals the spotlight a little too much: With its infectious Fatback Band-interpolating bassline, lead single “Like Sugar” barely needs Khan’s vocals to make you groove. Her placement in the tracks, often deep in the mix and drenched in reverb, can give the impression that she’s a guest on another artist’s remix.

Yet, it’s worth applauding Khan, who turns 66 next month, for continuing to make an album as vital and contemporary-sounding as Hello Happiness. Few artists still releasing new music as they approach their fifth decade in the business are producing work like this, with an ear to dance floors rather than the Grammys and NPR. One need only hear the sizzling man-eater’s blues of “Too Hot” to know that Khan is still in fine voice. On Hello Happiness, she pairs those ageless pipes with some of the most danceable music in her career.

Label: Island Release Date: February 15, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Yola’s Walk Through Fire Feels Like a Musical Time Capsule

The British soul singer’s debut seems to have emerged from a time capsule circa 1969.

3.5

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Walk Through Fire
Photo: Alysse Gafkjen/Nonesuch

Everything about Yola’s debut, Walk Through Fire, seems to have emerged from a time capsule circa 1969—from the album cover, with its muted color palette and chunky vintage fonts, to the musical arrangements, which mix baroque-pop signifiers like glockenspiel and pizzicato strings with more timeless organ and pedal steel. The album’s session musicians are of a similar vintage: Drummer Gene Chrisman and pianist Bobby Wood are both veterans of the house band from American Sound Studio in Memphis, ground zero for Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds” and Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis.

It’s tempting to ascribe this studious retro sensibility to producer Dan Auerbach, whose 2017 solo album, Waiting on a Song, treaded similar territory with some of the same musicians. But Yola, whose colorful backstory includes a brief stint with trip-hoppers Massive Attack, has a voice that lends itself to the analogue treatment: rich and mellifluous, adept at both caressing the melodies of a lilting ballad like “Shady Grove” and blowing the roof off of a belter like “Lonely the Night.” The British singer simply sounds like the product of another era, closer in spirit to the likes of Mavis Staples than to 21st-century R&B stylists like SZA.

If Through the Fire sounds like it’s from 1969, that’s because the late ‘60s were the golden era of country-soul, when a small but significant group of artists, songwriters, and producers were blurring the boundaries between working-class black and white roots music. Yola, who’s cited Dolly Parton as a crucial influence, is right at home in this space, sounding as natural singing atop the fiddles and pedal steel of lead single “Ride Out in the Country” as she does over the organ and horn section of “Still Gone.” The ease with which Yola, Auerbach, and their collaborators blend these genres is a powerful reminder of their shared roots—particularly at a time when musical styles feel at once more amorphous and more rigidly segregated than ever.

While Through the Fire’s facsimile of ‘60s country-soul is uncanny, the sturdiness of its songcraft is even more impressive. Yola and Auerbach composed the majority of the album with seasoned songwriters—most notably Dan Penn, who as the co-writer of standards like “The Dark End of the Street” and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” played no small role in the creation of country-soul as a genre. None of the songs on Through the Fire are of quite that caliber, and some feel like they’re trying too hard to be: The subject matter of “Ride Out in the Country” is a bit too bucolically on the nose, while a few stray lyrical references to “across the great divide” and “love [is] a losing game” come across as distracting tips of the hat to more canonical—and, frankly, better—songs. But on tracks like “Keep Me Here” and “It Ain’t Easier,” Yola seems capable of not only expertly mimicking the sounds of the past, but also creating something that will itself stand the test of time.

Label: Easy Eye Sound/Nonesuch Release Date: February 22, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Signs Points to Better Times Ahead

The band’s raw, crowd-pleasing blues-rock remains as rousing as ever on Signs.

3.5

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Signs
Photo: Shore Fire Media

Tedeschi Trucks Band’s raw brand of blues-rock is a thrilling resurrection of bygone genres endemic to the southeastern United States, and they play with the freewheeling improvisatory energy of hallowed country-rock bands like the Allman Brothers, Little Feat, and Black Oak Arkansas. The group’s sound hasn’t noticeably evolved since their 2011 debut, Revelator, but their craft—particularly the electrifying, full-throated howl of singer Susan Tedeschi—remains as rousing as ever on their fourth album, Signs.

Lead single “Hard Case” fuses Americana, Memphis soul, and New Orleans swamp funk to tell the story of lovers who can’t quit each other. Tedeschi’s wails seamlessly intertwine with Matt Mattison’s gruff warble. “You’re a hard case to refuse,” Tedeschi sings, her voice tinged with both overwhelming desire and a creeping sense of self-doubt. Like most Tedeschi Trucks songs, “Hard Case” attempts to capture the blistering kinetic energy of the band’s live performances, and it mostly succeeds: The drums pummel, the solos meander, and the guitars, expertly played by Tedeschi’s husband, Derek Trucks, unexpectedly leap forward.

“Hard Case” is the closest Signs comes to matching the unbridled dynamism of “Part of Me,” a soaring standout from 2013’s Made Up My Mind. Yet the album also contains a handful of irrepressible trad-rock jams that allow Tedeschi’s vocals to take center stage, as on the Motown-inspired “I’m Gonna Be There” and “They Don’t Shine.” On “Walk Through This Life,” her voice veers from exuberant and unrestrained to subtle and declarative, yet it never loses its luster, evoking, at turns, that of Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Nicks, and Gladys Knight.

Many Americana outfits have become sociopolitical observers in the Trump era, and Tedeschi Trucks Band is no different. “Signs, Hard Times” is a blue-eyed soul rave-up that calls on bystanders to get off the sidelines in a time when passivity amounts to complicity. “No more fooling around,” Tedeschi shouts, urging us to take action before it’s too late. Yet, at times, their activist message comes off as stilted. “Shame, there’s poison in the well/Shame, you know we can’t un-ring the bell,” Tedeschi proclaims on “Shame.” It’s a well-intentioned but ultimately shallow truism—a lyric that states the obvious without offering any solutions.

At their best, the songs on Signs bristle with a kind of wide-eyed optimism. On “Still Your Mind,” Tedeschi seems to sum up the album’s mission: “You’re not alone/So many people feel that low/But I’ll help you grow.” While not without its flaws, Signs heals in this way. It’s often so joyous and spirited that, for a moment, it’s easy to envision better times ahead.

Label: Fantasy Release Date: February 15, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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