Since many recent Next Big Things in rap have proven disappointing -- see Wale, Asher Roth and B.o.B. -- it might be time to consider the possibility that hip-hop tastemakers don't know what to look for in the first place. Here's an alternative to the critical consensus on rap. Yesterday, we took down Raekwon's Only Built For Cuban Linx Pt. 2 and offered up Ghostface Killah's Ghostdini: The Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City as an underappreciated alternative. Today, it's on to Eminem, Jay-Z and Wu-Tang Clan.
Sacred cow: Eminem's Recovery hasn't reach sacred cow status -- yet. But the man himself is already hyping it as some kind of slate-cleaning apology for his last few records.
Why it's overrated: From LL Cool J to Ice Cube to 50 Cent, "real" and "hard" comebacks always seem to sacrifice humor, charm, and whatever was unique about said rapper in the first place. Meet Recovery, where Eminem tries to be something he's not. He hires Rihanna and Pink -- because they're two of the only pop stars he hasn't made fun of. He tells his daughter he'll love her mother forever. He muses about space travel and seduction in his unflinchingly menacing voice. Yet there isn't a virtuosic jump in rhyme scheme or outrageous joke on the premises. Slim Shady is dead. But this will likely be seen as a minor comeback by critics, because at least there's no poop jokes or potshots at deceased Michael Jackson.
Suggested alternative: Eminem's misunderstood Encore. How did people forget they were listening to Eminem for poop jokes and potshots at Michael Jackson? Come back in a forgiving mood and you'll find a joy and energy in the stuff you might remember hating: the retarded schoolyard singalong "Puke," the magician's whirlwind of celebrity impressions in "Ass Like That," and the triple-childish "Big Weenie," Eminem's most hilarious Benzino diss, in which he hilariously tells Benzino over eight bars that his breath stinks. Then there's "Crazy in Love" (about his crumbled marriage) and "Yellow Brick Road" (about the cost of his adolescent ignorance) -- two of his wisest songs ever.
Sacred cow: Jay-Z's Reasonable Doubt.
Why it's overrated: Because it has Notorious B.I.G. on it. Because Jay had something to prove when he made it. Because he wasn't full of himself yet. Because people still really eat up lines like "Kept feeding her money 'til her shit started to make cents." But we like him best rich and smug, front and center, punk not reverent. And with big expensive hooks.
Suggested alternative: With all due respect to The Blueprint, which saps out near the end, Jay's best front-to-back listen is Vol. 3...The Life and Times of S. Carter, a crowning achievement for pop that brought together East Coast (The nasty, DJ-Premier-featuring "So Ghetto," built on a DJ Premier beat, in which Jay ditches a girl who insults his doo-rag), West Coast (Dr. Dre's menacing "Watch Me") and, most crucially, the South, which gave Jay his bounce on Juvenile's low-riding "Snoopy Track" and UGK's hedonistic "Big Pimpin.'" The whorish "Do It Again" and 50 Cent-dissing "It's Hot (Some Like It Hot)" mastered lazily rolling call-and-response, and the fame-mocking "Dope Man" took courtroom melodrama to the limit, complete with MTV anchor Serena Altschul reporting. You know you're huge when the Mariah Carey feature sounds modest.
Sacred cow: Wu-Tang Clan's epochal debut, Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers
Why it's overrated: It's not, actually. It's great. It's just not as great as The W. Rappers improve on their debuts.
Suggested alternative: Wu-Tang's 36 Chambers will start your party, but The W is a masterpiece of hip-hop soundscapes. RZA delved further into the experimental swamp on 2007's 8 Diagrams, but this mid-period triumph splits the difference between hard-popped gunshells (on the still-creepy "Careful [Click, Click]") and evaporated soul-psychedelia (the drumless, languid "Hollow Bones"). Plus, it holds two of the mostly quietly wrenching pleas against violence: The simmering "Let My Niggas Live," which features Nas, and Ghostface's wounded "I Can't Go to Sleep." But elsewhere, Method Man threatens: "In a room full of crackers I might cut the cheese."
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