The Audacity of Dope

6 Nov

NOTE: In the wake of Barack Obama’s historic victory, Black Ships will be taking a one-week sabbatical from strictly political posts. We’ll be sweating off our election hangovers with a variety of topics.

Hip-Hop's Brad Johnson?

There’s nothing hip-hop likes more than co-opting a sports cliche, and as the concept of the Game Manager (or Custodian) solidifies itself in professional football, it’s only a matter of time before the concept finds itself applied to a rap album. Conventional thinking on football has held that great quarterbacks win Super Bowls, and thus teams that want to win the Super Bowl (and who doesn’t, other than the Detroit Lions?) should find a great quarterback. There have been holes in this theory before, of course; record-breakers like Dan Marino never took home the ultimate prize. This decade, though, has seen the complete implosion of the idea. The 2000 Baltimore Ravens won the title behind Trent Dilfer, a joke of a quarterback, and the Tampa Bay Bucs followed two years later with the equally mediocre Brad Johnson. While great quarterbacks have won Super Bowls since (Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have four between them), the ironclad rule that a team needs a great quarterback has diminished in importance. Even now, the Tennessee Titans are the NFL’s only undefeated team, and they’re helmed by locker-room cancer Kerry Collins, who can’t even be counted on to show up to games sober. The game manager can’t be awful, but they must be aware enough of their limitations to avoid stepping on anyone’s toes. Instead, they avoid making too many mistakes, and let the rest of the team (defense, special teams, ground game) pick up the slack.

Similarly, the idea that in order to make a great rap album, one must be a great rapper, is getting left behind in the 20th Century. Sure, Jay-Z’s going to have an easier time making a classic than, say, Jim Jones, but it’s not a given. Plenty of talented rappers (Canibus, Ras Kass) have never made an album that even qualifies as tolerable, while Cam’ron’s goofy charm makes Purple Haze stand up pretty well. Get enough guests, the best production team money can buy, and avoid saying anything really dumb on the record, and you too could make a listenable album. It truly takes a village to make a hot record.

Even by these relaxed standards, though, Young Jeezy seems like an unlikely candidate. In interviews, he’s repeatedly stressed that he’s not a talented wordsmith, but a hustler who happens to rap. On “3 A.M.,” the lead single from his previous album, he couched it in more charming terms: “A ad lib here, a ad lib there, fuck it, ad libs everywhere!” His one gimmick–that he knew a lot of ways to describe cocaine–seemed destined to relegate him to the historical dustbin of 2005, the year every blogger fell in love with coke rap.

And yet, his new album The Recession goes beyond tolerable into the realm of actually listenable. He still hasn’t refined the formula that much, but throws in just enough references to our current malaise (gas prices, food prices, George Bush’s plummeting approval rating) to sound almost political, and the goofier lines (“eyes so low, I look like an Asian”) never quite tank the affair. Album highlight “Circulate,” in particular, demonstrates why people turned to so-called “reality rap” as a respite from the blinged aesthetic. Jeezy’s a smart enough businessman to know that in the middle of an economic crisis, talking about diamonds is as tone-deaf as a Lehman employee complaining about the size of his bonus. Even when he acknowledges his newfound wealth, he does so with an empathy that takes the edge off, and his multiple references to health challenges that various relatives of his are facing make the case for single-payer healthcare better than any commercial a 527 can whip up. The beats, predictably, lean towards the anthemic. Almost every song sounds like a conscious attempt to outdo T.I.’s “What You Know” for sheer bombast, and most of them at least come close. The influence of 70s soul that informed Jay-Z’s American Gangster also runs strong throughout the album, especially on the aforementioned “Circulate.” Nas’ appearance on “My President” closes the album out on an appropriately topical note. Does it touch the heights of The Blueprint? Of course not. But Young Jeezy has, almost in spite of himself, managed to game manage his way to a pretty damn good record.

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