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Bum Rap?

  DMX: The Great Depression

 

Def Jam, 2001

Rating: 3.7

    Jay-Z: The Blueprint

 

Roc-a-Fella, 2001

Rating: 2.0

 

 

Posted: November 5, 2001

By The Gentleman

In the flashy world of gangsta rap, it seems, image is everything. A rapper's worth is apparently measured in how much of a "playa" he can present himself to be. To this end, your average gangsta rapper usually decks himself out in the trappings of success, what's known these days, rather unfortunately, as "bling-bling." Sean "Puffy" Combs is the ultimate embodiment of this ideal, a presumed thug who somehow figures that fur coats and a house in the Hamptons will strike fear into the hearts of his foes.

On the streets, however, it's results that count, and no amount of empty boasting can substitute for good-old American elbow grease.

Jay-Z, like Combs, personifies the words-not-deeds school of thought. Although his first couple of albums boasted a few moments of raw talent (who wasn't moved by "Hard Knock Life"?), his later efforts have been embarrassingly lacking in heft. Jay-Z makes much of the fact that he's (apparently) the hand-picked successor to the late Biggie Smalls, and Rolling Stone sure seems taken with him, but a few unfortunate hours spent immersed in The Blueprint, Jay-Z's most recent work, reveals an emperor rather devoid of clothing.

How does The Blueprint disappoint? Let us count the ways. Throughout this dreary exercise in self-aggrandizement, Z (can we call him Z?) makes boast after boast about his rap prowess, a claim that is, on the evidence, completely divorced from merit. He speaks and raps in a lazy drawl, with an emotional range that runs the gamut from A to B., from sluggish to sullen. On "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" he arrogantly intones "That's the anthem/ put your damn hands up," obviously not convinced the audience will appreciate the track without some prompting.

A couple of tracks hover tentatively over the border between halfway decent and dreck, most notably the spry "Girls, Girls, Girls" (which doesn't once sample the Mötley Crüe classic of the same name, more's the pity). And "Renagade" actually quickens the pulse, although that's due to the scene-stealing rhymes of the deft, mercurial Eminem (not for nothing is this track shoved to the back of the disc -- Z is clearly shown up as the wannabe he really is). But for the most part, The Blueprint is a head-scratching affair, another jewel in a crown of tissue.

If Jay-Z is the pretender, all flash and no cash, then DMX is the contender, all seething menace and raw visceral power. That energy isn't harnessed to satisfaction on The Great Depression, his fourth album, but it isn't for a lack of effort -- or complexity. Depression is more balanced, both musically and thematically, than previous outings, although that's not necessarily a point in DMX's favor. Fraught with contemplative introspection, Depression is a bit of a downer.

The straight gangsta anthems ("School Street," "Bloodline Anthem," "I'm a Bang") aren't quite as hardcore as past tracks, and as often as not devolve into the usual empty boasting. When X throws in a dash of remorseful philosophizing, as on the bracing "Who We Be," the results are closer to his best work.

Which is not to say that Depression is light on the soul-searching. To the contrary, it offers more than the usual amount. In the past, X has folded these parts neatly into his harrowing, cinematic tales. Here, they're separated out, the better to cover more ground. "The Prayer IV" and "A Minute for Your Son" deal directly with God and religion, and are the purest examples yet of X's bedrock faith. "I Miss You" is a letter to a dead grandmother; an evocation of strong family ties (something Jay-Z attempts with far less success on Blueprint). And "You Could Be Blind" and "When I'm Nothing" tackle weightier matters than the usual gangsta topics of big asses, guns and gold.

This makes for a rather uneven listen, as the two sides of X's persona -- the snarling attack dog and the pious man angling for redemption -- just don't mesh. (It doesn't help matters any that the attack dog is more bark than bite, especially on a pile of misogynist crap titled "Shorty Was Da Bomb.") And while Depression sports a few moments of musical creativity ("Trina Moe," "When I'm Nothing,") the trend-setting tableaus of It's Dark And Hell Is Hot and And Then There Was X are sorely missed.

The Great Depression is a rather apt title, as DMX's gruff façade slips a bit to reveal a conflicted thug looking to transcend a genre that's been his bread and butter -- and which he's taken great strides to reinvent. (One has to admit that if and when X were to fully turn his back on the genre, it would be quite intriguing, although perhaps commercially suicidal.) This conflict is compelling, but it fails to translate into a great record.

As a DMX album, The Great Depression is a disappointment, his weakest to date. Compared to the execrable Blueprint, however, it's the Bhagavad-Gita. The Blueprint is drivel -- tired boasting from a henchman who believes his own hype. The Great Depression is a flawed work, but a nonetheless intriguing peek at one of rap's genuinely fascinating figures. And you can take that to the bank.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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