There’s a song on JAM’N 94.5 that makes me want to slash and laugh myself to stitches. The tormenter is Def Jam recording artist Jeremih “Birthday Sex” Felton; his weapon, “I’m a Star,” is a miraculous synthesis of hackneyed production and faux-consciousness. It’s one of those insulting tracks that proves how powerful big label honchos truly are, and how payola supersedes product. If Def Jam can pass off Jeremih as acceptable urban entertainment, then they could sell my grandma as the new Foxy Brown.
One need not employ chicken-or-the-egg philosophy to understand why certain hip-hop acts succeed while others flounder. In the words of Chuck D: “Consumers have the audacity to think consumption starts with them.” Like dogs beside a kitchen table, rap fans dance and drool over any ragged scraps their masters throw them. In the post-sample era, that’s mostly meant that FM listeners get stuck with barren beats and rhymes to match. But with such genuinely skilled artists as Wale earning marquee acclaim, it seems as if that cycle may snap. Whether trends bend, though, all depends on Jay-Z, and the direction in which he steers his new Roc Nation venture.
In his four-year tenure as the president of Def Jam – from 2004 to 2008 – Hova was ideally situated to bombard mass audiences with authentic and inspired fare. Instead, he surrendered the archetype imprint to the likes of Bobby Valentino and Rihanna, ultimately softening the urban soundscape in the wake of DMX and Ja Rule’s pop brutality. Jay also prudently embraced vapid Southern crack rappers like Young Jeezy for the sake of survival; but his morphing Def Jam into an R&B cheesecake factory was a spineless bottom-line driven copout.
Now it seems that Hova might wish to atone for spoiling Ric Rubin’s legacy. Beyond “Death of Auto-tune (D.O.A.)” – a tremendous gesture that ironically triggered an influx in transparently synthetic vocals – Jay selected North Carolina rhyme surgeon J. Cole to front the Roc Nation roster. Cole is anathema to 95 percent of contemporary radio rappers; in the fashion of Golden Era stalwarts like Nas, Rakim, and Ghostface Killah, he casually executes astounding verbal feats over spreads ranging from the corny to the complex.
Suggesting that Hova, via Cole, might single-handedly slant the arc of hip-hop is a major overstatement – particularly considering his also signing Alexis Jordan (of “You’ve Got Talent” fame) and Music Kidz, a production squad that manipulates more smoke and mirrors than a Neptunes track engineered in Snoop Dogg’s powder room. Still, Jay alone has the proper platform off which to flip the tired script, so the significance of his first recruit is indeed cause for champagne showers.
Even with his pockets lined by Live Nation compensation, there’s a chance that Jay may cower. Though one of hip-hop’s most commercially triumphant acts in his own regard, he routinely neglected legitimate acts while presiding over Def Jam and Rocafella. Just ask Redman, Sauce Money, Black Thought, Ghostface, or Memphis Bleek about their marketing budgets. Now, with a $150 million corporate crutch, Jay could find the sack to push substantial hip-hop back into the spotlight. Surely now is the right time to change the guard, what with 50 Cent and Kanye West growing more irrelevant each moment.
Of course; if you don’t feel like waiting for Jay-Z to resuscitate the game, you can explore the depths of so-called alternative and underground hip-hop on the Internet and college radio. I just thought the big man needed some encouragement; his pole position, after all, may be the last hope for rap to maintain a mere sliver of the mainstream integrity that the genre once enjoyed.