Anatomy of a Murder: Jay-Z's "DOA (Death of Auto-Tune)"

Brow Beat
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June 8 2009 10:14 AM

Anatomy of a Murder: Jay-Z's "DOA (Death of Auto-Tune)"

Jay-Z may or may not have actual convictions about Auto-Tune , the pitch-correction technology that has made robotic vocal hiccups ubiquitous on hit radio. He definitely knows that publicity stunts are good for business. Which, presumably, is why he recorded " DOA (Death of Auto-Tune) ," the broadside that premiered Friday night on New York's rap radio powerhouse Hot 97 and instantly became the talk of hip-hop.

Musically, "DOA" is a snooze. The beat, by ( prime Auto-Tune Offender ) Chicago producer No ID*, has walloping snare drum hits and soprano saxophone noodling—a stock old-school sound that signifies we are about to receive a schoolmarm's lesson in Real Hip-Hop. Which is what Jay-Z provides, or tries to, in a notably slack and witless recitation of would-be zinger-couplets: "I know we facing a recession/ But the music y'all making go'n' make it the Great Depression"; "This is just violent/ This is Death of Auto-Tune, moment of silence"; "This ain't a No. 1 record/ This is practically assault with a deadly weapon"; etc. To drive home the point that the track is Auto-Tune-free, the rapper's verses are interspersed with some painfully off-key warbling of the refrain from " Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye ."

Who exactly Jay-Z is taking on in this polemic is unclear. You would assume his targets are Kanye West , Lil Wayne , and T-Pain —the highest-profile Auto-Tune freaks—but in an interview on Hot 97, he excused those three on the grounds that their music has "great melodies." (Whether this is a virtue is complicated by a boast in "DOA": "My raps don't have melodies.") In lieu of picking a fight with human beings, Jay-Z disses technology itself, calling out not just pitch-correction software but iTunes and ringtones.  (We await the release of the rapper's forthcoming Blueprint 3 album for Jay-Z's rants against the cotton gin and the steam engine.)

In other words, Jay-Z has slipped on his backpack and is playing the curmudgeonly hip-hop purist.  This is usually a bad omen—the sign of a rap career in precipitous decline—but Jay-Z is strategically astute. In an interview with MTV, Kanye let slip: "We actually removed all the songs [from Blueprint 3 ] with Auto-Tune to make the point that this is an anti-Auto-Tune album." Evidently, Jay-Z's disdain for Auto-Tune is late-breaking. Did he listen to his Auto-Tune-slathered new songs, realize he sounded silly—like an old man huffing and puffing to keep up with the kids—and opt to turn this shortcoming to his advantage? Production crazes in hip-hop have notoriously short shelf lives; with or without "DOA," Auto-Tune will soon fall out of favor and die of natural causes. But clever ol' Jay-Z has positioned himself to claim credit for a murder. 

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Correction, June 8, 2009: The post originally stated that the beat was also produced by Kanye West. Contrary to many published accounts, West had no role in "DOA."

Jody Rosen is a Slate contributor.

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