The lost art of decay
When paradigms shift or trends mutate, it's hard to notice, because such changes are usually gradual accretions of stylistic transformation, rather than cataclysmic upheavals. But when you finally notice how far something has traveled from its origins, that particular moment can be as shocking as a board to the back of the head. For me, that moment was hearing "99 Problems" from Jay-Z. No, not the Danger Mouse-remixed version; just the plain ol' album track from The Black Album. Drenched in old-school audio cues -- Rick Rubin's production cannily utilizes thick-brush samples of Mountain and Billy Squier that have been repeatedly used by lesser talents for the past decade and a half -- the song is a rare one for Jay-Z in that his always-stellar rhyming is actually subordinate to the driving force of the track.
"99 Problems" is a track that screams its allegiance to hip hop's adolescence. Rubin's entrepreneurial spirit ensured that his label, Def Jam Records, was the label that moved the sound of New York street parties into the mainstream, and his production ethos was what helped that sound mature from second-stream disco into something all its own. Having him produce "99 Problems" -- after quite a hiatus from the genre -- was a masterstroke on Jay-Z's behalf. But it's the production itself that makes the track so invigorating, as Rubin's old habits of piling rock-hard guitars and thicket-dense drum tracks are in full play, but with a decidedly modern touch. It's in "99 Problems" that we hear something in a hip-hop record that we haven't heard for some time: decay. That organic bleeding of semi-live instruments into one another, the sound of a kick drum naturally fading, the sound of bass lines wobbling in the background: It's the absolute antithesis of the tight-as-a-tick studio sheen that defines most modern hip-hop. Its sudden re-emergence into the genre's mainstream is something shocking indeed, and in its own way, it demands a look backward at the genre.
"99 Problems" isn't featured on the new four-disc collection from Universal Music's catalog arm, "The Hip Hop Box" (Jay-Z is conspicuously -- criminally? -- absent), but it would have made an excellently circular ending track to the set, which launches, of course, with "Rapper's Delight" and wends its way through a decent, if far from perfect, selection of 51 tracks. To get the bad part out of the way, here's what else you won't find: Run-D.M.C., Slick Rick, Beastie Boys, EPMD, Grand Puba, Ice Cube, N.W.A., Mos Def; hell, Notorious B.I.G. and Snoop Dogg are only featured cursorily, as guests on tracks from Junior M.A.F.I.A. and Dr. Dre, respectively. To be sure, you could easily make the case that no remotely comprehensive look at hip-hop would omit those artists, and to that end, "The Hip Hop Box" should actually be titled "A Hip Hop Box" because there's a lot of ground this set doesn't cover.
That said, these four CDs -- the first two much more so than the last two -- lay out a chronological run-through of some of hip-hop's best moments. From "The Breaks" and "Roxanne Roxanne" through (the lame soundtrack version of) "Fight the Power," "Looking at the Front Door," "C.R.E.A.M." and "You Know My Steez," a good number of high points are hit. Sure, the inclusion of tracks like "21 Questions" or "Tennessee" raises some eyebrows -- especially given the omissions -- but the box is still a cohesive reminder of the vitality of this now-dominant musical form.