Distracted by politics, wounded by their own grief, artists have struggled mightily to help us recover from the biggest tragedy of our age
Jay-Z, rap’s most important voice, created a lasting album that made us all New Yorkers
After the World Trade Center came down, some musicians got angry; others wept openly. There was Toby Keith’s flag-waving rage (“The Angry American”), a literal counterpart to Neil Young’s more studied sadness (“Let’s Roll”).
Much was made of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising,” a 15-track portrait of the day after the terrorist attacks. Like Green Day’s “American Idiot,” we needed “The Rising” — to help us deal and mourn and live in a changed world.
But 10 years later, those records are remnants. They’re not the best works from those artists. They’re not even their most important.
While Jay-Z’s “The Black Album” wouldn’t be the most obvious choice as a standout post- 9/11 record, it gives us everything we need.
There is the local connection, as Jay will be the first to tell you: The streets of New York belong to him. (Remember “The City Is Mine” from ’97?) There is the remorse and anger, with Jay sounding like a changed man — dealing with the new rules as a millionaire, but still dealing. Of course the hip-hop braggadocio is still here, but Jay exercises actual modesty and introspection, including a couple of stories directly from his mom’s mouth on the track “December 4th.”
Pre-“Black Album,” Jay was a superhero who ditched his ghetto childhood for a life of Bentleys and Benzes. But here, we see pieces of Jay the still-vulnerable human being — pieces that might not have shown themselves were he not living in an unpredictable New York in 2003.
From “December 4th”: “Now I’m just scratchin the surface cause what’s buried under there/Was a kid torn apart once his pop disappeared/I went to school, got good grades, could behave when I wanted/But I had demons deep inside that would raise when confronted.”
To boot is the random coincidence: Jay’s “The Blueprint” was released on the actual day, Sept. 11, 2001. And with that record, Jay positioned himself as the biggest rapper on the East Coast. With “The Black Album” — including the President Barack Obama favorite “Dirt Off Your Shoulders,” the angsty Rick Rubin-produced rock-fest “99 Problems” and the soulful “Change Clothes” — Jay became a towering figure in New York hip-hop, American style and worldwide pop culture. And he retained street cred all the while. –Ricardo Baca
Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” captured 9/11 horror before it even happened
From the first moments of the first song on Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” — the definitive record from one of the definitive bands of the past 20 years — a sense of pain and confusion prevails.
Infusing the melancholy tunes: a gurgling antenna drone, a radio dial searching for a signal, a chaotic drum beat and a ringing alarm clock that leads into the lyrics:
“I am an American aquarium drinker
I assassin down the avenue
I’m hiding out in the big city blinking
What was I thinking when I let go of you?”
If America wanted optimism in the wake of 9/11, Wilco denied it. In lieu of patriotism, lead singer Jeff Tweedy venerates the consumer Americana of ATMs, Diet Coke and cigarettes.
Through 11 avante-garde songs that run the gamut of Americana, powerpop and noise rock, Wilco paints a landscape of a troubled America in the early 2000s. Sometimes beautiful, sometimes horrific, always challenging and inaccessible, it’s a record that requires repeat listens.
Some songs allow their thematic value to float readily to the surface like dead fish (see “War On War” and “Ashes of American Flags”), while others find post-9/11 beauty in simple subtleties.
The unabashed highlight — the orchestral roadhouse waltz of “Jesus, Etc.” — can send chills down your spine with its chorus: “Tall buildings shake/Voices escape singing sad, sad songs.” And while much of the record was put to tape before that morning in September, its release some seven months later felt inexplicably connected to what it meant to be a young American in April 2002.–John Hendrickson
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