I politicise hip-hop, me, and not even its own politics, at that. I hear Jay-Z and I see the Black Thatcherites / Egotists, I hear Nas and I see the Black Butskellites / Consensualists, I hear Ludacris' "Move Bitch" and I see Luda and his posse kicking Aneurin Bevan's body into the Rhondda, shit and filth all over it and, by extension, all over the corpse of British Socialism. During the 2001 election campaign I destroyed my copy of Jay-Z's The Life and Times of Sean Carter, and I think that was because I couldn't quite bring myself to accept that I could no longer be regarded as a socialist, and that hurt me, so closely bound up with my childhood had the Old Labour ethos been. I bought it again within a week, of course.
Jigga's new album, the sprawling, ridiculously elephantine The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse, fits firmly into the grand tradition of double albums; lots of unnecessary, indulgent, cringemaking moments (lifting "My Way" as if to draw one egotistical comparison too many, ineptly appropriating Earth, Wind and Fire's ever-lovely "Fantasy", the ridiculous Lenny Kravitz collaboration "Guns and Roses", the whining lyrics of "Some People Hate" almost overpowering its ace, brooding brown soul sound) and all its artist's worst traits shown up en masse: Jay-Z's essential lack of any lyrical themes bar "I'm great; everyone else is rubbish", honed in last time out because The Blueprint was so immaculately stripped-down, is all over this album like a rash, and it makes it a bloody hit and miss affair, I can tell you that.
Hova's at his best when he's simply displaying his key character traits - sheer all-pervasive self-confidence, utter domination of his field, devastating repetitive wordplay - and spitting them over tight, visceral, often semi-hysterical tracks; there's the action-movie thrustle of "Hovi Baby", which is pretty much the ultimate Westwood record - as it twists and percolates escastically, you can hear the corpses of those key five voters Sir Harmar Nicholls had in 1966, pissing off a then-young friend of this writer and his parents and all sorts of things you needn't know about, shaking into the air and falling back into the earth, reduced to mere wreckage rather than the noble dead (see also Jay's protege Freeway and his astonishing, breath-stopping "What We Do", the most emotionally lacerating Roc-A-Fella track yet in that it's the first to show genuine self-doubt in the first to show genuine self-doubt in the morality of their activities even as it makes clear that they know no other way, and of course head down south for The Clipse, the grinning, tyre-screeching Richard Widmarks of rap, whose "Grindin'" is probably the greatest pushing-old-ladies-down-the-stairs-and-grinning anthem ever, plus the lift-shutter hook reminds me of Dartford station, so how can I dislike it?).
Hmmm, maybe my digression into other - newer, fresher - sounds is a sign of this leviathan's weakness. Timbaland and The Neptunes are on pretty good form on The Blueprint 2 although both, like Jay-Z himself, end up dealing in their own cliches. Tim breaks "What They Gonna Do" down into exhilarating junglism, and what with Sean Paul toasting it really is quite a London thing, but "The Bounce" and "2 Many Hoes", while both smart, clever technoid club drivers, end up sounding like Timbaland-by-numbers, as though he's repeating his earlier innovations rather than paradoxically taking it even further like he's done paring it down with Missy this season - the harder he tries, the more you know Tim will never top "Snoopy Track" when he's working with Hova. "2 Many Hoes" is great, yeah ... but the Clipse's "When The Last Time" is greater. Pharrell and Chad manage the edgy recontextualised acoustic guitar and synth sneer of "Nigga Please", but they sound tired and overworked here - I won't shout "fallen off" yet, but if they can attach their name to something as thoroughly tedious and sophomoric as "A Ballad For The Fallen Soldier", alarm bells have to start ringing.
There are joys amid all the bluster. Jigga recharges "U Don't Know" and pushes it over the top as M.O.P. join the party, still The Shirehorses with a straight face (Laura RIP), and all the better for it. "Show You How" has genuine menace, mainly because Just Blaze is audibly bonding with Hova, physically mating with him, pushing him from behind with an oddly 80s Radiophonic slow-burning sound (and see also the Malcolm Clarke build of Benzino's otherwise pathetic "Crush, Kill, Destroy). But the teaming of Jay and Blaze really explodes with "Bitches and Sisters": the brass! the swolla-hollas! the movements! the loss of control! the sheer insouisance of every one of those fucking words! (and God, I will never, ever forget the first time Westwood played it - "LISTEN TO THE LYRICS!!! LISTEN TO THE LYRICS!!!!!!! ... I swear the foundations of my own home, and maybe even my own country, crumbled at that moment). It's what Jay-Z does best, really - repulsively awesome, utterly irresistable, high-powered Black Nuremberg Rally music.
When he slows it down he just sounds like a boring egotist, and when he pretends to have some sort of socialist credibility (a socialist can no more admire Jay-Z than a Jew could admire Adolf Hitler) he just sounds pathetic - on the title track "Blueprint 2" Jay ludicrously complains that people don't give him credit for giving his money back to "the projects". Norman Tebbit would have stood a better chance of being taken seriously if he'd whinged that people didn't acknowledge his respect for the social traditions of South Yorkshire.
You always feel that Nas is expressing some sort of affinity with his people as a collective, as though he has some affinity with the idea of togetherness, of universal solidarity against the oppressors, a clear rejection of Jigga's "get money, dominate everyone else, don't give a fuck" philosophy. The cocky, utterly self-centred triumphalist semi-sneer of Jay-Z's expression - not as creepy as the babyfaced Clipsers, but getting there - would be quite alien to him. "Got Ur Self A Gun", the single off Stillmatic, was a call to his people to unite - if they're out to get you, you have to form a unified force in retaliation, rather than simply grabbing what you can get and sneering at those of your own kind who have "failed" in Thatcherite terms.
"Doo Rags", the opening track from Nas' recent The Lost Tapes, has a friendliness that Jay-Z could never comprehend - it's a sort of personal reminiscence extended into the universal which wouldn't work by ultra-capitalist criteria (Hova would sneer the moment he heard it). Even "Made You Look", the stormlike single from his new album God's Son, has an essential collectivism underpinning the gangsta-ish shouts of "BRAVEHEARTS!" (the video even starts with a quote from Rudyard Kipling!) this is a retaliation movement open to anyone who relates to it, not just to those who've hustled hard enough. What Nas represents may be a faint echo of the spirit of Britain 1945, but it's still there, modified and recontextualised, underneath it all.
And for those to whom it means the most, I guess this is political, certainly more than the Toxic Texan's warmongering or the charade of Strom Thurmond (or is it Storm? What is the fucker's name anyway? I really don't care) celebrating his 100th birthday while still in office. US politics is essentially a mirror of the infighting and safe tribal wars of white America, and damn near irrelevant beyond that. Jay-Z and Nas should both run for president next time out; if nothing else, we'd know from the outcome whether it's the Thatcher or Attlee tendency ruling black America right now. The Black Thatcherites are clearly commercially dominant right now - The Blueprint 2 has sold three million in its first month while God's Son has disappointingly only made number 18 in its first week - but people might just change their priorities if their political future was at stake, and hell, if that isn't the ultimate forum for social and cultural chasms, what is?
Robin Carmody, 20th December 2002