We used to have rock stars. Folks like John Lennon and Mick Jagger and Debbie Harry and Kurt Cobain, who critics and Top 40 fans could agree on, bridged the gap between the mainstream and the underground. They played music that your mom and your teenybopping kid sister and your goth cousin could all enjoy at the same family reunion. These days, we still have that guy — but he doesn’t take the stage with a guitar in hand. He’s Jay-Z, the rapper and businessman who managed to both top the Village Voice’s 2009 Pazz & Jop critics poll and score close to 50 million YouTube views for the same song, “Empire State of Mind.” (And it’s probably not a coincidence that this is a track in which Jigga names himself “the new Sinatra.”)
Yet unlike the major rock stars of yore, who maintained an air of mystery, only lending their names to projects that wouldn’t compromise their integrity (or, for the more cynical, their brand), Jay-Z is everywhere all the time. And so far, we can’t get enough of him. But is he at risk of overexposure?
Just last night, Jay-Z and Eminem taped a performance on the roof of the Ed Sullivan Theater to air Friday on Letterman. Also making the rounds today is a supposedly final version of Hova’s collaboration with Dr. Dre, “Under Pressure.” He’s recently collaborated with Drake and headlined Bonnaroo. He remixed M.I.A.’s “XXXO” and improved it vastly. The guy just had a Rolling Stone cover story called “How Jay-Z Became the King of America“! Meanwhile, hipsters who caught Jay-Z and his lady at a free Grizzly Bear/Beach House show last summer are already on the lookout for him in the general vicinity of Williamsburg venues.
For the most part, Jay-Z’s work has been irreproachable. But to be honest, although we eagerly clamped on headphones to hear the Dre collab, we found “Under Pressure” kind of bland. And it’s got us wondering whether Jigga needs to stop slapping his name and/or showing up for an hour of studio time to lend his aura to every major pop and hip-hop project out there.
It’s not that he doesn’t have high standards. Especially in the past decade, his standout albums have clearly been the result of painstaking work and careful editing. We’re just feeling kind of ambivalent about seeing his name and projects plastered all over the news every single day. Maybe that’s because we remember the hype and anticipation surrounding the release of The Blueprint 3, which came out nearly two years after its predecessor, American Gangster. We adore Jay-Z: He’s fascinating, brilliant, incredibly talented, and charismatic. But if he never steps out of the limelight, he can never leave us wanting more.