Death of Album Artwork: Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 3

jayz-blueprint3

jay-z1With the blogosphere buzzing over the latest leak of the artwork and rumored tracklisting for Jay Z’s Blueprint 3, I’m caving under pressure to offer my two cents. Truth be told, I’ve never been much of a Jay-Z head and witnessing the way fools jock his every move isn’t propelling me into fandom. For some odd reason, very few hip hop bloggers are commenting on the contrived artwork (though making astute observations on the tracklisting). While I understand that the quality of music should stay in focus, I want to highlight the new direction of hip hop album artwork. First, I think we can all agree that album artwork is on the decline as Internet downloads have pushed record stores and thus CD sales further and further into obscurity. *To clarify, I am not arguing the quality of artwork is declining but rather the overall emphasis (and interest) is diminishing at the mainstream level. However, for artists with as much clout and hype as Jigga, CD sales and by extension album artwork remain relevant. Second, there is a tendency developing to big up artists who flirt with “conceptual” ideas that break away from the so-called canon of hip hop iconography (money, cars, clothes, hoes etc). I argue that this emergent trend of adopting abstract faux-avant garde artwork such as Kanye’s kitschy Warhol inspired “pop art” exposes a seriously underdeveloped (and undiscriminating) visual vocabulary. I have observed that people often praise artwork they feel they don’t “understand” for fear of missing some hidden “deep” meaning. Indeed, many mediocre contemporary artists rely heavily upon the depth popular audiences project onto their “conceptual” (read: campy/unimaginative) works of art. While diversifying images is necessary, we need to remain critical of what we’re looking at! One should be weary of artwork that is only reactive (read: when something is defined by what it isn’t — THIS is not that) or when something is applauded only for being “different”. We know what it isn’t but what is it? For instance, Kanye has a fetish with being “different” or “unique” in all his pursuits without recognizing the impossibility (or at least the paradoxical nature) of his ambition. How do we collectively define what is new? As I’ve illustrated before, Kanye is notorious in niche NYC based artist communities for explicitly jacking/selling ideas and re-branding them as his own. I wouldn’t make a fuss over this if he wasn’t building an empire on the backs of creative folks hustling everyday just to make a dollar. (I recognize that “Kanye” represents a brand that includes teams of image consultants, PR people and record execs). I’m also not arguing that any idea can be traced to one pure, singular source (i.e. these niche NYC based artist communities). However, matrices of money, power and fame complicate already messy politics of ownership and “intellectual property”. Let’s not act like this is a recent phenomenon (in light of ancient debates over Elvis eclipsing the Rock’N’Roll legends of color who paved the way for his success). I digress…in my opinion, simple and straightforward album covers like Nas’s “Illmatic” or The Fugees’ “The Score” are in fact more powerful, memorable and complimentary to the music itself and ultimately trump failed experiments in hip hop album artwork like Jay Z’s Blueprint 3. There is an arsenal of innovative artists who use album art to push their music (and overall image) in interesting directions. For example, artists like Madvillian pull from more theatrical elements while the likes of The Coup reserve their covers for clever political satire to animate their record’s narrative. Janelle Monae goes as far as creating an entire visual world to house the alternate universe she (Cindi Mayweather — her alter ego) inhabits. This is to say, album art has the potential to enrich hip hop and the popular imaginary so long as we stay critical and honest with what works and what falls short. At the end of the day, if you can’t name or identify specific ways in which Jay-Z is revolutionizing hip hop with his cover artwork, you should re-evaluate your opinion. Lastly, to all the notable hip hop bloggers out there, I challenge you to critique artists’ artwork and finally dispel the myth that you have to be an “expert” to offer an opinion. That said, what are your thoughts on the Blueprint 3 design? Please leave a comment! ***Update: An old friend (and impressive illustrator/musical encyclopedia, Billy Jacobs) elaborated on the subject of Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 3 by linking me to legendary designer Frank Olinsky’s blog where he points out that: “the cover of Jay-Z’s forthcoming album, The Blueprint 3, may have “borrowed heavily” from my concept and design for the Secret Machine’s 2004 album Now Here is Nowhere. See and read more here.” Upon further investigation, it appears as though Jay-Z’s design team appropriated elements from a (random) array of sources: Olinsky’s cover for Now Here is Nowhere, U2’s most recent album No Line On The Horizon and the “stark background with striking red element” motif of Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak (though I’m not as sold on this point and I don’t care much for U2). Coincidence?:

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Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for interesting and clever juxtapositions however haphazardly collaging other people’s work with no footnotes or citations to speak of is an entirely different story. In spite of my best efforts, I can’t seem to find any information from the person or people responsible for Jay-Z’s artwork to help clear the air. However, I did stumble upon Jay-Z’s take on the meaning of his cover that fails to mention any of the aforementioned influences. I must say, my skepticism is only growing.

JayZ_tracklistBefore I go, I will share two final Jay-Z mis-steps that bolster my arguments. When everyone was applauding his “Death of Autotune” single, a number of us were vigorously shaking our heads at the obvious hijacking of Roger Riley and Teddy Troutman’s earlier “Death of Autotune” release poking fun at the plug-in’s ubiquity.  FWMJ over at Rappers I Know was the first blogger to call it out and re-post Riley and Troutman’s official statement. Revisit that exchange HERE. Last point: why is Jigga making an exception for Rihanna’s blatant use of autotune in “Run This Town” ??? Consider your point thoroughly undermined. Phew! Thank you to those of you who are actually reading this post. En Fin.

Comments
11 Responses to “Death of Album Artwork: Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 3”
  1. seher says:

    wow that is some hideous ass shit….

    err. i see you uppin the posts! go iiiiisa.

  2. C+ says:

    Let us pause for a Moment of Clarity: Jay-z is not, and never has been, an innovator.

    Exhibit A:
    Truthfully
    I wanna rhyme like Common Sense
    (But I did five Mil)
    I ain’t been rhyming like Common since
    When your sense got that much in common
    And you been hosteling since
    Your inception
    Fuck perception
    Go with what makes sense
    Since
    I know what I’m up against
    We as rappers must decide what’s most important
    And I can’t help the poor if I’m one of them
    So I got rich and gave back
    To me that’s the win, win
    The next time you see the homie and his rims spin
    Just know my mind is working just like them
    (The rims that is)

    Jay-z, in true capitalist fashion, does what makes the most sense for the bottom line. I expect him to write commercially viable raps, laid over commercially (read: safe (read: predictable)) viable music. He is a business man, and a smart one at that. He knows his audience, and he manufactures a commodity that will sell in high volume to them. That said, I have never, and will never look to him for any sort of creative risk taking. He is not a visionary.

    If I could offer a quick critique on The Blueprint 3 album cover, I would call it a plea to return to music’s origins, in what appears to be a mausoleum of music’s relics, ossified and preserved in a sterile, white cast. As the birth of the recording industry occurred with Edison’s phonograph, those machines and instruments have undoubtedly enriched the lives of millions. Their golden years became tarnished as we enjoyed the convenience and accessibility of digitized tools, and many of hip hop’s creators forgot the value of genuine instrumentation. With CD sales being dismal, the emphasis has come back to the artist’s stage performance, the experience with the music, and thus, the band’s instruments. This theory would correlate with the number of bands that we see accompanying artists now. Wale, Mickey Factz, Blitz the Ambassador, & Janelle Monet, to name a few.

    If we consider his appropriations more critically, “Now Here Is Nowhere” & “No Line On The Horizon”, we could read these titles in juxtaposition with the state of visionless, directionless, chasing-its-tail music industry. Record label formulas no longer produce the same outcome. Here (safe, secure, predictable) is now Nowhere (risky, stolen without authorization, and completely unpredictable). And there is no end in SIGHT to this madness because these self-preserving executives POSSESS NO VISION FOR INNOVATION.

    The great irony here is that everything is cyclical. Once upon a time, there was no such thing as a record or a CD. If not for Edison’s phonograph, the recording industry, and its empire of commodifying and selling the live music experience might never have existed. Now that music is free, the recording industry should recognize the value of music’s origins, and invest more heavily in the development of musicianship and performance.

    We should pile all the stagnant, gate-keeper executives in the corner, paint them white, and leave them to be forgotten. Then we might be able to jam.

    C+

  3. Mikey McFly says:

    Not an innovator…. Two Words: Reasonable Doubt

  4. C+ says:

    Reasonable Doubt, while a definitive class, does not make Jay-Z an innovator. Mikey, when the album dropped in 1996, I was 12 years old, which means you were 11. Given our youth, I highly doubt either of us could comprehend the meaning of that album, especially not to draw the conclusion that it was somehow innovative in comparison to the rest of hip hop that came before it.

    The beat production of Primo, Ski, Knobody, and Clark Kent, while obvious gems were not innovative in their reliant sampling of funk, soul, and jazz records. And as for Jay’s Mafioso rap content, gritty realism, and repeated reference to Scarface-like plot lines, AZ, Nas, and Raekwon are three examples of Mafioso-laden albums that dropped two years before Jay came out. Which means Jay-Z merely popularized the sub-genre, but certainly did not innovate it. Besides, BIG was more compelling.

    What, in your opinion, is innovative about Reasonable Doubt? I’m open to your ideas, but right now I’m not sold.

  5. J. says:

    I know with the death of Auto tune song, it was use as to say, stop over using it, he even said in a interview I have no problem with it when you use it with melody or a song that would be good even if it wasn’t in it. I believe it was aimed at people such a Ron Browz and Dj Webstar, cause they made some pretty damn horrible songs with its use, lol

  6. J. says:

    and I wouldn’t call Reasonable Doubt innovative but is was no doubt classic

  7. J. says:

    “Exhibit A:
    Truthfully
    I wanna rhyme like Common Sense
    (But I did five Mil)
    I ain’t been rhyming like Common since
    When your sense got that much in common
    And you been hosteling since
    Your inception
    Fuck perception
    Go with what makes sense
    Since
    I know what I’m up against
    We as rappers must decide what’s most important
    And I can’t help the poor if I’m one of them
    So I got rich and gave back
    To me that’s the win, win
    The next time you see the homie and his rims spin
    Just know my mind is working just like them
    (The rims that is)”

    C+ said it best “He is a business man, and a smart one at that” So he is gonna do what he has to do. I believe there is actually more depth to his albums though, this referring to his innovative side, but if you don’t pay attention to lyrics, which I know Isa does and now from looking at C+ blog he does as well then it is hard to tell if he is genius

  8. L says:

    Wow Isita, you really go in on this post. I appreciate your call to the public to be critical and explore and prod the meaning of art, even though they haven’t been deemed ‘experts’ of such. I agree with your take on the wavering attention covers are given these days. Like you said, with other means to access music, we don’t have to purchase cd’s in order to enjoy the music we love. Your critique brings back memories of my own experience with music. When I was little, I was in and out of Sam Goody (Sam Goody doesn’t even exist anymore..another indication of the trend)rummaging through cds. I kid you not, before even putting the cd in the player, I made my way through the entire album booklet from front to back. Back then, the album art and booklet meant just as much as the cd and music itself (same when I had my cassettes). It was a collection of great music but also of great artistry. We all remember taking the shrink wrap off our cds and giving it that look…like yeeaayuhhh. With all the speculation about his album cover, and the flood of false covers that came out, I wasn’t even fully convinced at first that this was the finished product. Can’t say I’m disappointed, cant say I love it either, I think I’m skating the line of apathy (oy, I know) with this one. I’m pretty sure I’ve been disillusioned with hip hop for quite some time now(Though bugginout certainly is sucking me back in!!!) and certainly was pushed over the edge after that ‘hip hop class’ we took in college.

    I’m gonna abstain from the innovative or not debate and be tangential for a sec and say that truthfully, I can never be a hater of Jay-Z. Despite such claims, the Brooklyn in me will never cast him aside (and neither will the Bajan in me since he signed RiRi..just being honest) but I think its important that we recognize that artists like Jay do pull people into hip-hop who feel they are outside that sphere. Hip hop and its followers can be exclusionary(gasp). The self-aggrandizing ego that rears its ugly head whenever hip hop convos jump off as we attempt to one up each other is a turn-off. Those who weren’t hip-heads back in the day, who can’t recite off the dome lyrics of the greats, who can’t reminisce about the African medallions and revolutionary power of hip-hop now feel like they have a way in via Jay. And, not knowing the history doesn’t give them the excuse not to be critical, but it now gives them an opportunity to begin to explore the importance of the genre and its evolution and constant struggle to return to its origin. Like with everything else, hip hop and its followers are ALL on one huge learning curve.

  9. zkong says:

    man, this was dope to read

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