Say what you will about Jay-Z’s technique—how he switches up his flow to suit his subject-matter, how he composes rhymes in his head and doesn’t write anything down—we love Jay-Z because he is the hip-hop Everyman. Jay-Z took anonymity to superstar proportions. He released a monolithic album a year for eight years, yet we know next to nothing about him. And what we do know seems cribbed from the rapper’s workbook they hand you the second you decide to become an MC. Jay-Z was our blank slate upon whom we projected all of our personal hip-hop dreams. His primary attribute was a vacant coolness, and when he showed back up this year and spent an album rhyming more introspectively and honestly than ever before, people flipped out. He wasn’t ours anymore. All of a sudden, people could criticize his personality, because for the first time he had one—not even a fully fleshed out personality, mind you, only the beginning of one. Of course, the inevitable fall of Jay-Z in 2006 only underlined what most of us already knew. We live in a new era of hip-hop, and that era’s name is T.I. Jay-Hova is dead; long live the King.
King takes the structure of a generic hip-hop album and uses it to flesh out and perfect a sound that has spent the last couple of years in its nascent stages—the vaguely Southern bounce accentuated by keyboards and horns whose last peak was Young Jeezy’s Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101. T.I. hits all of the marks—the I-want-you-back-girl song (“Hello”), the pouring-out-the-40-for-the-lost-homies song (“Live In the Sky”), the shout-out-every-potential-major-market-in-America song (“Ride With Me”), the don’t-call-it-a-comeback-(even-though-nobody-was-calling-it-a-comeback-anyway) song (“King Back”)—but he filters them all through a sensibility that rivals Jay-Z’s eight year run. But where Jay-Z’s back catalogue contains stylistic flourishes that make his singles jump out (the children’s chorus on “Hard Knock Life,” the Kanye/Just Blaze sound of The Blueprint), T.I.’s sound is all business, with everything in service of the song. “What You Know” is the first monster rap hit not to owe a debt to The Blueprint since The Blueprint. He is the new Everyman, only more so; the man we all want to be. We know next to nothing about him, except that he’s cooler than shit, and that’s more important than anything else.
-Marty Brown, 2006
"...and the prophecy read, that one day, like the phoenix aroused from the ashes, that a boy would be born unto a family in the slums. This boy would go on to use the knowledge he gained while fighting for survival in the streets, To Become A Great Leader. And in time that boy would become King."
That's how you start an album. Or, at least, that's how you'd start if an album if you wanted it to be really good.
Have you seen a picture of T.I. with his shirt off? Doesn't that make you want to do sit-ups and drink protein shakes?
Or shave your head?
There aren't enough albums that rhyme "the sirens is silent" with "on Fantasy Island." Unless we missed something, there's only one.
See, the problem with Jay-Z saying he'll kill someone to settle disputes is that we all know, beyond certainty, that he has people do that for him, if he's involved in it all. Jay made more money doing a computer commercial than a street dealer makes in a year. And if Clipse were going to kill anybody, they'd probably have done it during the last two years that they were dicking around trying to release an album. 50 Cent is about as scary as a wet dream, whether he can cry in a movie or not. (He can, cause he's a little girl.) T.I. on the other hand could believably record backing vocals for Timberlake while slicing off a hater's earlobe. And while we should all be grown up enough for "cred" to mean nothing, we're not, and it means a lot.
2006 was a year with a whole lot of albums that tried to hide commercial interests under artistic clothing: The Killers, Christina Aguilera, Jay-Z, Bob Dylan, Gnarls Barkely, Tool and a thousand others (most of which can be found in the Rolling Stone Top 50) put out albums that were as flimsy as the paper that made their too-long linear notes while sounding like they were approved by the same focus groups who pushed 18 talking animal movies on film-goers. It wouldn't surprise anybody to find out Owen Wilson did backing guitar for Dylan or filed paperwork for Gnarls Barkely tours: the asshole was everywhere else. It's tried and true dull cynicism to pretend that 2006 was any worse for music than any other year, so why break tradition? Where was our Broken Social Scene? Why did Mars Volta and The Evens spiral down so badly? Will Jeremy Enigk hurry up and take his own life before he tries another solo album on us?
So yeah, maybe King isn't that innovative, and maybe it's lyrics are too easy to remember, and maybe the beats don't break ground. Who is it that said hip-hop had to be moving forward quicker than any other genre? Rock and Jazz stay the same for ten, fifteen years before they move along. As far as anyone can tell, Classical music stayed the same for something like 400,000 years. But if a hip-hop album comes out that doesn't sound that different from something in 1999, if it just sounds like the son of 'Hova returning, everybody shits all over it and brings up some pussy ass Blackalicous album as if it's the antidote to cancer. The Factual likes the Digable Planets as much as the next white guy, and we'll always listen to the Roots and mention how they "play their own instruments" as if that's so goddamn hard, but when it's time to stop being a moody freak isolating in a bubble like Kurt Russell it'll be albums like King we listen to: because it's fucking push-up music, cause it's got the boom you test subwoofers to, and because it's a hell of a lot more fun to scowl when you're not wearing a goddamn backpack. 2006 was the year that tried to make albums like this guilty pleasures. I'm here to tell you that ain't right. If you're listening to Belle & Sebastian, Scott Walker and Joanna Newsom, you're the one that should be embarrassed. (And I am, so don't try that card here.)
-Tucker Stone, 2006