Death of Album Artwork: Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 3
With 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?:
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.
Before 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.