If there were any doubts about the seriousness of Jay-Z's quest to vanquish Auto-Tune, he dispelled them within seconds at Saturday's Powerhouse '09 in Anaheim's Honda Center. He opened his set with his single "DOA (Death of Auto-Tune)," an atypical shot across the castle walls of pop music, where the pitch-correcting software is a ubiquitous sound for pop vocalists -- including many preceding him at Powerhouse.
For the virtuosic, confident rapper, that declaration of war comes during a career in flux. After two relatively underwhelming albums and his resignation from his Def Jam Records executive position, the forthcoming "The Blueprint 3" may be Jay's last best chance to reassert his position atop the rap world.
"DOA" isn't really about ridding music of a particular vocal effect. It's a mission statement valuing technical skill, narrative craftsmanship and the strength of persona over nimble trend-jumping. At Powerhouse, the annual festival-cum-chart recap for Power 106 (KPWR-FM 105.9), Jay's vision for rap won the battle handily. But it's still an open question as to who will win the war.
Anyone who's contended with drunk club-goers in the last year would be familiar with the singles that ruled the night. New Boyz, popularizers of the "jerk music" sound dominating teenage L.A. today, wore flashy Cosby sweaters to kick out the lanky single "You're a Jerk," while Cleveland's Kid Cudi cut to the quick of "Day N Night," possibly the first rap tune about being an antisocial pothead to tear up club charts. Goofy local duo LMFAO combined every unfortunate trend in pop-rap today -- hokey synths, neon Capri pants and choruses about persuading reluctant girls to drink shots -- in a single tedious outing.
An unexpectedly better romp through the top 40 came from Sean Paul and Flo Rida's sets, two lyrically below-average rappers who have been un-killable on radio. Sean Paul's Caribbean patois was especially elastic on the new dancehall banger "So Fine," while Flo Rida has abdicated any thuggishness for a tattooed-teddy-bear charisma that fits him much better.
The Cuban American rapper Pitbull is an unlikely conquering hero in today's mainstream hip-hop. Teaming up with veterans of Atlanta's crunk scene, like his Powerhouse guest Lil' Jon, may have been his best career move yet. Pitbull's strong delivery rides easily atop smacking dance beats and harsh synthesizers, but it's also a natural fit for the clattering percussion and guitar samples of more Latin-leaning tracks like "I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)."
An off-bill guest provided the most clear-cut juxtaposition between Jay's rap ethics and those of today's singles charts. The Black Eyed Peas made a surprise appearance, and played two inescapable recent hits. "Boom Boom Pow" and "I Gotta Feeling" are defiantly obvious in a way that makes you almost suspect artfulness -- the latter begins with a wistful melody, before devolving into nonsensical pleas to smash things at bar mitzvahs.
Jay-Z's riposte was apparent from his backing band. It was clearly rap as art, not artifice -- but the difference is ever harder to discern today. Older tracks like "Jigga What, Jigga Who" had a cockiness and severity all but absent from today's more playful rappers, and his sonically adventurous material, such as "Beware of the Boys" and "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)," felt as instant and revelatory as ever.
But no one at Powerhouse needed a reminder of how good those songs were -- what they needed from Jay was a sign that equally great ones were imminent. "Run This Town," the new single from "Blueprint 3," has a mournfully resilient hook, but wasn't as urgent as the world-beating ambition of even work as recent as 2003's "The Black Album."
Jay-Z's CV is untouchable by anyone working in rap today, and he's aware of that. But Jay is at his best when he's touching nerves and raising standards. "Blueprint 3" will have to stand on its own merits, but with his Powerhouse set, Jay proved he's still quite deft at doing both.
Check out a review of the weekend's other big hip-hop concert, Rock the Bells