Jay-Z is a different kind of great rapper: Unlike Rakim or his nemesis Nas, he doesn't boast a dense, virtuosic, jazz-like flow. He's more like his hero Notorious B.I.G. -- a charismatic talker and storyteller whose honeyed voice and relaxed, spontaneous-sounding style make listening effortless --and perhaps never more so than on The Black Album.
The Black Album is billed as Jay-Z's "retirement" record. No one who knows anything about hip-hop really believes that this is the last album Jay-Z will put out. (And he even subtly acknowledges this on "Encore": "As fate would have it/Jay's status appears to be at an all-time high/Perfect time to say goodbye/When I come back like Jordan, wearing the 4-5/It ain't to play games with you/I'll take aim at you.") But the notion gives the album a conceptual framework that helps it cohere better than previous standouts like Vol. 3: The Life and Times of S. Carter and The Blueprint.
Where Jay-Z's previous record, the double-disc The Blueprint 2.0, felt tossed off, The Black Album carries a palpable seriousness of purpose that comes directly from the idea that this is a final statement. It's almost completely devoid of extraneous elements -- the skits and guest appearances that clutter most major-label rap records -- and has little topical variance outside of Jay's own career and artistic status, which, luckily, is a bottomless topic.
This is the most likable Jay-Z's ever been, a function of the introspection the album's theme brings to the fore. Where, on previous records, Jay-Z made good on the Sinatra comparison he likes to play up with callow, Teflon-coated vocal finesse, here he lets us peek through the protective shell a little bit. Jay-Z's music has always resided at the intersection of art and commerce, but The Black Album is the first time in his career where he lets that tension become a theme. Tracks like "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" and "Threat" are thrillingly standard-issue but are balanced by tracks like "Justify My Thug," which does just what it says, acknowledging the limits of Jay's usual lyrical content and then defending it ("Mr. President/There's drugs in our residence/Tell me what you want me to do?").
The Eminem-produced "Moment of Clarity" borrows not just a sound (even vocal, especially on the chorus) from Jay-Z's only real king-of-rap competition but also the style of diary-entry confession, taking the listener on a riveting visit to his father's funeral ("Pop died/Didn't cry/Didn't know him that well/Between him doing heroin/And me doing crack sales [Standing at] the church/Pretending to be hurt wouldn't work/So a smirk was all on my face/Like, damn, that man's face is just like my face") and segueing into an acknowledgment of his critics and his own admiration for the "conscious" rappers that they praise over him ("I dumbed down for my audience and doubled my dollars/They criticize me for it, yet they all yell 'Holla!'/If skills sold, truth be told/I'd probably be/Lyrically/Talib Kweli/Truthfully, I wanna rhyme like Common Sense").
This tour de force is followed by the chaotic "99 Problems," in which producer Rick Rubin rummages in his attic for some of the rap-metal production he pioneered with Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys nearly 20 years ago, the dirt and grime only adding to the ear-popping sound and inspiring perhaps the wildest and most playful vocal performance Jay-Z's ever given, including a traffic-stop vignette in which the rapper plays both sides of the confrontation.
"This here is the victory lap," Jay-Z raps at one point. It won't be the last we hear of him, but if it were, The Black Album would be a pretty good way to go out. --Chris Herrington
Rufus Wainwright's third album, Want One, is dressed to the nines: Every song is accessorized with soaring strings, booming brass, and shamelessly baroque production. "Oh What a World" shows up with a low-cut brass oom-pah rhythm, while "Go or Go Ahead" walks the red carpet with a bombast that borders on heavy-metal thunder. And "I Don't Know What It Is" sports a revealing little number accentuated with full, grandiose orchestration.
In that song, Wainwright proclaims he's "in love with beauty," and his approach on Want One may be a little off-putting, especially when contrasted to the more straightforward production of his self-titled debut and its follow-up, Poses. The real problem, though, is that the music cannot match the wit and feeling in Wainwright's lyrics and melodies, which, fortunately, carry on in the same style and standard he's always shown.
"Men reading fashion magazines," he sings on the lead-off track. "Oh what a world!" Want One is Wainwright's account of his growing distance from that world, both musically and emotionally: "I tried to dance to Britney Spears/I guess I'm getting on in years," he confesses on "Vibrate," then sings the chorus -- "My phone's on vibrate for you" -- like an old man both intrigued and intimidated by technology.
Want One is best during its less-is-more moments, when Wainwright's voice and lyrics are front and center. "Pretty Things" is just him at his piano, and "Vicious World" sets an ethereal melody against programmed keyboards and an unobtrusive rhythm section to achieve a peculiarly theatrical intimacy.
Like an actor on stage, Want One projects to the rafters; Wainwright is playing not just to the individual listener but to an imagined audience of thousands. His lyrics are endlessly quotable and his voice is perfectly matched to put his songs over. The weak link on this production is its production: The music sets the stage well, but it can only distract from Wainwright's naturally expressive voice. -- Stephen Deusner
Come Feel Me Tremble
Known infamously as the often messed-up and irreverent frontman for classic '80s rockers the Replacements, Paul Westerberg's solo work since the band's 1991 breakup has been decidedly patchy, but the past few years he seems to be getting closer to the mark.
Westerberg's earlier solo work had its great moments but was often overproduced and way too sedate, while his 2002 Stereo/Mono alternated between incredible sloppiness and hints of genius. Like that album, Come Feel Me Tremble is also a glorious mess but one that has more stunning moments than not. Though the subject matter is similar -- songs about drinking and death still predominate -- almost every song here seems to have a whiff of that old Westerberg magic, whether it's a ballad, a rocker, or a punk-fueled rampage.
As usual, the ever-evasive Minnesotan refuses to divulge other players on the CD, but there's no mistaking his lazy but Stonesy guitar or his world-weary but compelling vocals. The faint aroma of Brit-pop, circa 1965, gives "What a Day (For a Night)" its punch, while two different versions of "Crackle and Drag," a song originally debuted on the Stereo/Mono tour, are equally good, though one's a near ballad while the next version is an indie stomper. Finally, after years of uneven releases, Westerberg seems to be inching toward a happy compromise between trying too hard and not trying at all. -- Lisa Lumb