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Down III - *Over The Under*

“We’ve been changed by the season of the storm...”

That line, from the Down song “On March The Saints,” says less about the band that wrote it and more about their love and home: NOLA. New Orleans, La., is the root of what makes this band, so much so that it is the name of their first album. That first record remains in my MP3 player years after it was that disc in my CD player, as I’m sure it would have been that LP in my record player had it come out decades ago. That would have made perfect sense, actually; if any band embodies the spirit of Zeppelin and Messrs. Pink and Floyd today, it is Down, composed of Phil Anselmo, Pepper Keenan, Kirk Windstein, Rex Brown, and Jimmy Bower (the drummer, known for his Bower Power). Just like Zeppelin went from acoustic to pillaging Vikings all on the same album, Down has evolved from sheer power on NOLA to acid rock with*Down II: A Bustle in Your Hedgerow*, to true Southern gentlemen on the band’s latest, Down III: Over the Under.

What has changed these young men into the musicians they are today cannot be pinned down to one event, although Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath looms large over this work. So does the loss of Dimebag Darrell Abbott, the one and only genius that was Down vocalist Phil Anselmo’s foil in Pantera. While Dimebag, a guitarist, was the happy-go-lucky Kiss fan whose ability would eclipse Pantera’s other members, Anselmo was the dark, brooding, and utterly fascinating lead singer whose vocal style would lay the foundation for every hardcore-meets-metal group at a Hot Topic store near you. This dynamic was cut short in 2001, when Dimebag was shot on stage in Columbus, Ohio, as his brother played drums behind him. Anselmo had been feuding with Dimebag before his murder, and the raw emotions experienced between the two camps evolved for Anselmo into grief, and that can be felt on Over the Under.

Sadness and loss would figure to be the main themes of Over the Under, but there is more to the story than that. Over the Under asks the larger question: Can you ever truly come home again? And, if not, can you accept walking away, asking nothing in return? The last song, which I believe will become Down’s “Stairway to Heaven,” asks that very question. It is the members of Down at their finest hour — not at their heaviest, because nothing will ever recapture NOLA; and perhaps not at their most experimental, such as II, but at their finest as musicians.

Jay-Z, *American Gangster*

Here’s a rap analogy you’ve heard before: Jay-Z is to rap as Michael Jordan is to the NBA.

The comparison began as early as the late ’90s, when Brooklyn rapper Jay-Z (real name: Sean Carter) released five albums between 1996 and 1999 (including 1996’s Reasonable Doubt, still considered one of the finest rap albums of all time). Each one achieved worldwide critical acclaim and platinum status; like Jordan, Carter was the undisputed king of his craft.

With seemingly nothing more to accomplish in the field of rap, Jay “retired” in 2004, shortly after the release of The Black Album. After becoming CEO of Def Jam records, Jay un-retired in 2006 with his album Kingdom Come. Enter a new analogy: Jay-Z is to 2006’s Kingdom Come as Jordan is to the number 45.

But the analogy didn’t hold. While Kingdom Come was lyrically bland and musically unadventurous, Jordan was still exuberant and successful, winning three championships in a row. Meanwhile, Jay looked more like Jordan on the Wizards (wearing number 23): a former legend, failing for the first time in a long time.

But now Jay-Z is back. On Tuesday, he released American Gangster, a concept album based on the Ridley Scott film of the same name. He claims the power struggles in the movie reminded him a bit of his own life, where he used drug dealing and rapping to get past poverty and police corruption.

His album, however, is filled with confusing paradoxes that significantly detract from the music. Most obvious of these is the simple idea of Jay-Z putting out a concept album about his own life: Hasn’t he been rapping about himself, his life, and his struggles since his first record? Isn’t the crux of rap music, after all, about telling one’s own story through music and lyrics? Why is Jay making a “concept album” based on what he’s been rapping about his whole career? This redundancy emerges most blatantly in “Hello Brooklyn 2.0,” where Jay, for the umpteenth time, pledges allegiance to his favorite borough of all. Jay proudly proclaims, “Hello Brooklyn, if we had a daughter, you know what I’d name her? Brooklyn Carter.” Really Jay? Would you really name your daughter Brooklyn? No, you wouldn’t.

Redundancies and inconsistencies aside, Jay is still a magnificent storyteller, painting vivid pictures of his own life through words and music. (He forgot this on Kingdom Come.) On “Roc Boys (And The Winner Is)...,” Jay’s content is simple and celebratory: “Oh, what a feeling/I’m feeling life/You ain’t even gotta bring your purses out/We the dope boys of the year/drinks is on the house.” It’s a simpler concept, but over the sizzling horn patterns and oozing bass line, it feels like Jay’s right next to you at New York’s finest bar. And that’s when he’s is at his best; it’s not when he’s trying to make grandiose conclusions about his far-from-finished music career, it’s the lines where Jay is just being Jay that really score.