Icon Aughts :: Madonna and Jay-Z: Pop Pillars

Round 6 of “A Dime, A Dozen” brings us to a pair that needs no introduction (that was easy): Madonna and Jay-Z


As far as modern culture is concerned, there was no “before Madonna” or “before Jay-Z,” these two go back with American Pop like babies and pacifiers – we were the babies, they appeased our early adolescent pop culture confusion, and fed our pop hearts (watch this space). This list wouldn’t exist without either of these Pop pillars. Essentially, not enough can be said about the overall impact of Madge or Hov on modern music and culture. However, said impact is by-and-large concentrated in their heydays of the 80s (Madonna) and 90s (Jay-Z). Yet, in the midst of bubblegum pop tarts and auto-tuned out wankstas, Madonna and Jay-Z remained relevant. They were not so much out of touch with the young mainstream, as they were elevated monarchs presiding over their pool of possible heirs.

Madonna and Jay-Z are not only Pop’s pillars; they are the architects, Godparents, and yin and yang. They don’t collaborate with one another, they act independently to build each of their niches – which combines to create a panoramic baseline for Pop. The 2009 VMAs indicated just that:

The VMAs open with Madonna — $120m “360″ deal for 10 years, about to come out with her epic greater-than-greatest hits CD/DVD collection: Celebration, reminding the world of her icon status, not that she trying to steal the spotlight from the Taylor Swifts, but that she built the stage they’re on right now — and the VMAs close with Jay-Z — $150m “360″ deal for 10 years, off the heels of his 9/11 concert and Blueprint 3 release, reminding the world of his icon status, that he’s not battling the Gucci Manes, but that he christened the battlefield, he’s reminding the pop princes, princesses, and paupers how to look at the big picture and get into the empire state of mind. So, the middle is all filler but the bookends are steady — thanks, Live Nation, you corporate behemoth you.

As architects Madonna and Jay-Z (literally) laid the blueprint throughout the decade.

Madonna: I don’t know if you’ve heard, but music: it makes the people come together; you see, it makes the bourgeoisie and the rebel – and the beautiful strangers. Don’t believe me? Fine, just don’t tell me stop; tell the rain not to drop. Just try not to have the rain drop on my American life; I’m living the American dream here (seriously, who wouldn’t want to wax poetic about Pop culture all day). Madonna doesn’t spring to mind when one thinks of the 2000s, but rather than ask why, the question is why not? If you can’t name three Madonna songs from this decade, it isn’t because you don’t know her work, it’s because you didn’t pin them to her. Madonna is a Pop entity, but Madonna’s work is Pop culture.

Madonna began 2000 with her brilliant follow-up to the iconic Ray of Light, Music – done. Oh yeah, and I don’t know if you’ve heard of Borat, Bruno, or Ali G, but you can thank Madonna for bringing him stateside first.

Madonna writes singles, in her sleep, with two adopted babies, a half-Brit boy, and a half-Puerto Rican daughter that is already flier than pilots. The single “Music” embodied Pop – like an extension of Madonna herself. It was infectious, catchy, concise, and universal. 2003’s American Life was her socially conscious record (and for the record: forget what you heard, the album is not terrible, it still stands above the bulk of Pop that came out in 2003). Had it not been Madonna who released American Life, had it been a “socially-conscious” artist, the reviews and general reception would have been worlds different. Yet, it was Madonna. So, she took a “flop” album and followed it up with the larger-than-life-so-good-you-thought-I-was-retiring-but-I’m-just-getting-started-…-again Reinvention Tour. Yes it sold out, yes you wish you went. 2005 took you to the dance floor, and Catholic or not you confessed, and left your head and heart there (watch this space). “Hung Up” – in the ever illustrious words of Madonna – was “just a badass song.” Oh, what’s that? Disco is dead? Madonna is too old to be relevant? Tell that to the 5 VMA nominations and Guinness Book of World Records – but not Madonna: it’s hard to hear you when she’s sitting way up there. 3 years later, she decided to save the world in 4 minutes. Hard Candy was Madonna filling out a to-do list before the decade ended. J. Timbs: check, Timbo: check, Pharrell: check, Kanye: check, solidified place in – yet another – tween market: check. Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock… Don’t tell her to stop. She rounded out the 2000s with her third greatest hits album – first full compilation of her 26 year catalogueCelebration, because, well, it’s a Celebration bitches – thus Weezy’s presence: AARP Early Bird specials for everyone!

Madonna knows the game – completely. She signed a 360 deal with LiveNation as only the second artist on their labelfor a cool $120 million. In an age where people can barely keep up with the newest smartphone software (not Madonna, and her two Blackberries, iPhone, and pay-as-you-go-because-I-have-a-side-hustle-too), and every music executive is trying to figure out how to make money in the midst of file-sharing, Madonna has one tip for staying on top: make ridiculous live shows, because you can’t download the experience of a good live show. Money talks, haters walk: Reinvention Tour, Confessions Tour, Sticky and Sweet Tour – sold out, sold out, sold out. Like Ye, Pharrell, Lupe, and Thom said: “The more you try to erase me, the more I appear; and they love it, and they love it, and they love it…”

Every great Pop figure has to transcend just their day job. Last decade, Madonna got unconscious; this decade, Madonna got socially conscious. She went to the second poorest country in the world, and put them on the map: she raised Malawi. She single-handedly got the government to create adoption laws – just because she felt like adopting one of their native children. Oh yeah, and she produces documentaries: considered ones.

She is the undeniable godmother to Pop. Any female pop star hoping to do anything, models themselves after The Queen – but it is only those who have that something that get the seal of approval. Christina, Britney, and Missy got it in 2003. Another certain someone got it this year (watch this space). Even the boys want to come to her yard: Pharrell got it, Timbo got it, J. Timbs got it, Lil’ Wayne got it, 50 got it on TRL. Love it or hate it, all of those she graced got money.

The brilliance of Madonna is in her hustle. She’s hustled from 1983 to and through 2009. Madonna might be the least-liked Greatest of All-Time of her kind. My brothers see her as a non-entity, most teens don’t know she makes music, no “cool kids” really acknowledge her publicly, and yet every single one of them knows who she is. That is Pop. When people don’t know why or how you got to be part of the vernacular and general consciousness, and when they do find out they scoff, but even still accept, respect, and perpetuate your necessary presence and relevance. She’s like Michael was: everyone within the industry knows what’s good – namely, her – and the mainstream follows suit, even, and especially, if they don’t.

For the kids out there who need a quick refresher course in who Madonna was/what she did this decade: Music, American Life, Confessions on a Dancefloor, Celebration; “Music,” “Don’t Tell Me,” “Die Another Day,” “American Life,” “Hung Up,” “Sorry,” “4 Minutes;” Reinvention Tour, Confessions Tour, Sticky and Sweet Tour. For the grown folks who are to hard/real to get down with that-old-lady-all-the-gay-guys-like: she was going to mother Tupac’s child – don’t worry, the rest of the review will be here when you get back from letting the magnitude of said child marinate.

Madonna has hit an uncanny level of connected detachment with Pop culture. For this woman to be as well-known as she is, she is never shook. The only rumors we hear, are those she allows the media to publish. That is unheard of in this day and age. She is so above that of which she is such an integral part. Go to one of her shows and it is uncomfortably present. She has this unnatural ability to create atmospheres that strike the most innate chords – unleashing the most basic visceral elements of human nature. Most performers achieve this by living their art, and exuding their own emotions to build a connection with the audience. Other performers achieve this by “doing the Disney” – shelling out bright lights and loud fluff to a demographic of pre-adolescent tweens who go into super-cutie-seizure mode at even the faintest sight of the Mouseketeer du jour. Madonna does this by mentally constructing the perfect concoction of peak-produced audio, impeccably aligned visuals, pinpointedly precise choreography, and the finest engineered effects for any given venue – all masterfully intertwined and synchronized to create one of the best live experiences our generation has ever witnessed. The key though, is her detachment. She does not feel what her fans feel, she doesn’t want to feel that. If she were empathetically linked, she would lose what makes her reign supreme. She is legend because she has been in the business from the bottom up, and knows what makes people tick tock, tick tock, tick tock: breakdown. Whereas another not-once-in-a-lifetime-but-once-in-life figure (watch this space) lives in a kingdom created by the fans – the kings and queens writing the perceived history of her, their devoted jester – Madonna is the Queen of her kingdom, and her kingdom is Pop. Namely: this

Jay-Z: Hoooovaaaa. Pretense: He’s not a businessman, he’s a business – man. Jay-Z is not just the Godfather. He’s the boss to which you answer, and from which you gauge yourself. He’s also Pop’s grandpop; he’s the one that makes you take your shoes off at the door, makes Cam take the pink mink off, makes Lil’ Mama’s label take her off, makes T-Pain take the shades off, makes Kelis take Nas off the yard, makes Soulja Boy take off the canary yellow, makes the world turn auto-tune off; he’s the one who makes you feel foolish for having it on in the first place, and the one you turn to for glory day reminiscences, and war stories.

You know what got big this decade: Brooklyn. You know who is so Brooklyn? Hov. Like T.I. did with the trap, Hov turned the world into his Marcy Playground. He’s a don, and not just a made man – but a self-made man. In 2000, he introduced us to The Dynasty: Roc la Familia – diamonds up. In 2001, (yes, on 9/11) he laid the official groundwork with The Blueprint, the instant classic, that remains in stereos from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean – and everywhere in between – to this day. Then, he unplugged it. The genius of Hov is his timing; he can flip albums like one Roc, two Roc, Black Roc, Blue Roc – namely coming out with the epic Blueprint 2: The Gift and The Curse one year after The Blueprint. Right at the – then thought – peak of his popularity and demand he dropped his retirement release in 2003: The Black Album. He said he was retiring, but now it seems he only threw out that idea to see if you would justify his thug – and, you did. So, with that settled, Hov came back in 2006 with Kingdom Come. Although, he did manage to drop one of the nicest verses to fall under cameo status on Memphis Bleek’s “Dear, Summer” in the interim; and collided with Linkin Park, while he was at it. After kingdom came and went, Hov graced us with 2007’s much needed return to theme albums: American Gangster – it’s Lukie baby.

Now, we are in 2009 and Hov laid the blueprint yet again. This time charmed without charming. Jay-Z released The Blueprint 3 out of a necessity we didn’t know existed, sitting in limbo deaf in the midst of auto-tuned distortions and blinded by iced-out distractions. Timing is everything with Mr. Carter. When he was hustling on the corner he shelled out albums every year, he was a hot rapper and that was the best business model for him. By the time we got The Gift and The Curse, Jay-Z hit J-Hova status and he knew he had to retire. For everyone to say, he didn’t retire; he actually did. He retired the runner status, and emerged a kingpin. He moved from checkers to chess in his downtime. He made business mergers, and acquired corporate partners. Britney died, because she’s human and she’s a personification – that’s what humans do. Hov retired because he is a business man, he is an entity. He doesn’t die, he retires. Madonna and Jay-Z share that connected detachment. Hov is all black everything, nothing shakes or shivers him – he grew up on the Brooklyn corners in the dead of Winter, the industry is the last thing that would give him a chill. Hov lives coolly detached.

People hated on BP3 because it wasn’t The Blueprint, because it wasn’t Reasonable Doubt, because of everything it wasn’t – Hov the prophet made BP3 it’s own answer to the questions it would spark – and thus is why everyone else loved it:

Hov on that new, [and they] like how come; [and they] want my old sxxt, Buy my old album/[and they] stuck on stupid, I gotta keep it movin; [and they] make the same sh*t, Me, I make the Blueprint

Why is Hov all over Letterman, the VMAs, AMAs, FuseTV, Rhapsody, and everywhere in between now? Because that’s what grown men do – grown men with $160m LiveNation deals. Hov has transcended the corner, he’s a corporation. He still has a hustler’s mentality, and that’s why he’s not hustlin on the block anymore. Dress for the job you want, not the job you have: Hov has the job he wants and the tailor-made threads suit him like the Brooklyn’s finest he is. More importantly though, address said job – he can’t design the blueprint if he’s always at ground zero with the construction workers.

Madonna and Hov are Pop’s yin and yang: where she shells out sugar (sticky and sweet) and appeals to the Pop fiends; Hov cooks it up on the stove, and hustles it out to the block fiends – we laud it, and they love it. They are two completely opposite sides of the same coin. She’s the Madonna to his Lucifer, the music inferno to his ice cold. I doubt I’ll see a studio collaboration between the two at anytime, outside of the “Justify My Thug” sample, and the possible exchange of pleasantries at the LiveNation holiday party. However, when Kings and Queens sit amongst their thrones, they rarely face each other – often, they face forward; check, and mate.

Madonna and Jay-Z are the steady constants that set the foundation for the landscape they dictate.


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