Jay-Z: Change The Game
Immerse yourself in Jay-Z's 1996 debut Reasonable Doubt and you'll never hear rap the same way again. There are levels of detail, complexity, subtlety, and wit that continue to reveal themselves even after twenty years of listens. Maybe Jay-Z hasn't changed that much, despite his own claims in his recent New York Times interview. He's always managed to come off as the smartest guy in the room, even among his conscious rap peers. Personal growth - and wealth - aside, Reasonable Doubt is testament to the fact that Jay-Z was never just a thug or a hustler. His influence is all over hip hop today but his style is inimitable.
Reasonable Doubt was born from the NY hip hop boom of the mid 90s, a descendant of Nas's Illmatic. The two rappers be forever linked although their tones are completely different. Nas is more of a classic rapper, rooted in hip hop's golden age of boom bap and afrocentricity. Illmatic eclipsed anything before it and still may be the best rap album ever made. But there's something more progressive in Reasonable Doubt's fluid narratives. Jay doesn't moralize, nor offer any respect to anything or anyone that doesn't involve him getting paid. Sounds simplistic? It's not, and therein lies the genius. It works more as a lawyer's eloquent defense of a client which manages to illuminate social truths in the process.
Jay-Z's second album hangs heavy with the ghost of Notorious BIG. Jay was a friend and peer, higher up than just a crew member if not quite on the level of the great Frank White. The deaths of Tupac and Biggie came right at the time hip hop was breaking big in the mainstream and Jay stepped into big shoes on Vol. 1, even saying so much on “The City Is Mine.” The album as a whole is a bit below Reasonable Doubt, brought down by a few ill advised crossover attempts. But it continues the narrative of his persona, now beset by fame and new threats (“A Million And One Questions,” “Streets Is Watching”). But as he assures us - “the floss game is still intact.”
Vol. 2 and Vol. 3 are both affected by his adaptability to trends. An insular artist, Jay-Z is not. So Vol. 2 is filled with tinny Ruff Ryders beats and shout-along choruses, while Vol. 3 is bouncier Timbaland club stuff. They're still good albums, but they set a precedent for his occasional veering into cruise control mode in order to sell records. Vol 2 had the breakout hit “Hard Knock Life,” which despite the sample from Annie still manages to be pure Jay-Z - “let's stick up the world and split it 50/50.”
The release of Vol 3 was attended by a bootlegging scandal in which he was charged with a nightclub stabbing. Regardless of the particulars of the incident, this was a period which every rapper seems forced to endure. See the list of rap stars whose careers get derailed by legal troubles and jail - Tupac, Lil Wayne, most recently Meek Mill. Perhaps this is the price of fame or perhaps it's something much worse, evidence of the social injustice to which the music speaks. I've always had the suspicion that these high profile cases are meant to “set examples” in the most brutal ways. We can't exculpate aberrant behavior but we should also question why seemingly every major rap artist ends up getting targeted.
Jay-Z addresses this obliquely on the next compilation album Dynasty: Roc La Familia. But as always, the focus is on the future. It would set in the place the players for his most successful period. We're introduced to producers Just Blaze and Kanye West, who would drive the Rocafella Records sound.
2001's The Blueprint is the peak of this era, his second classic album. It's a cohesive sound with soul samples, so even the big singles have a classy vibe. “Takeover,” with its Doors sample and fearless stomping out of his peers, is the real key song.
Jay-Z's disses aren't like other rappers - he's not gonna kill you, he's just gonna show how you're getting killed with your bad business decisions. Mobb Deep never really recovered from their verse but the one directed at Nas is the most important. Nas was at a career low after some disappointing albums and weak crossover singles. But with Tupac and Biggie gone, Nas was king so it was only natural Jay went at him. “Takeover” is a powerful song but Nas's response “Ether” is legendary. Nas is not your typical rapper either, so his diss was a psychological dissection of not just Jay-Z but the man Shawn Carter. Jay tried to respond with the vulgar “Superugly” - a track for which he'd later express regret - but the battle was already over. Nas proved Shawn Carter lost already.
So the next double album Blueprint 2: The Gift and The Curse is not quite the victory lap it was supposed to be. His label is still on top and the production is still epic but there's a defensiveness that doesn't vibe with his usual persona. Some of it is just odd, like using Biggie's whole verse from “Juicy” on “A Dream” or some guest riffs by Lenny Kravitz. The shadow of “Ether” was too large, lending the whole thing an air of fraudulence. I still like Blueprint 2 - it's the sound of Jay-Z trying to figure his way out of a corner and not quite getting it right.
His next big announcement was retirement, as he began promoting what would be his final album. (We can't forget the S.Carter mixtape which was released in the interim which reminded us his flow was still untouchable.)
He promised The Black Album as a look back on the era he mined for Reasonable Doubt with crime stories and whatnot. But the result was something different and much better. The Black Album is the best rapper at the top of his game, even as he seems to think he has nothing left to say. I get the sense that The Black Album was Jay-Z proving to himself was still the best, which is what makes it so special.
The album surpassed its own hype and found a life of its own. When the acapellas were released, a bunch of mixes flooded the market, most notably The Grey Album which paired it with samples from The Beatles' White Album; that mixtape kicked off the career of producer Danger Mouse. So The Black Album was a defining moment, the point at which Jay-Z became the crossover star he is today.
And then he retired. Not really, with some guest verses, touring, and a spot as Def Jam president. His return was inevitable and so perhaps was the let down. 2006's Kingdom Come was the first in a trio of albums (with 2009's Blueprint 3 and 2013's Magna Carta Holy Grail) that just don't work for me. They're spread too thin with pop influences and experiments. He's not out to prove anything except that he hasn't fallen off and that doesn't serve as much inspiration for strong material. These albums seem engineered to be accepted by as wide an audience as possible, thereby truly connecting with none. And the guy from Coldplay sings on “Beach Chair.” Fuck that.
2007's American Gangster soundtrack is surprisingly strong and focused. It feels like the album Jay promised before TBA, with a final look back at the old crime life. 2011's Watch The Throne, the Kanye collaboration album, is just plain weird. It's all about decadence from opposite directions - Jay's at the art museum while Kanye's sniffing coke with models. It kind of works in spite of itself; these are two of hip hop's elite, responsible for classic music together, but they seem to be in entirely different places. As they still seem to be - note again Jay's recent interview which addresses their current relationship. Jay is Kanye's big brother, with all the occasional scraps that accompany that.
Nonetheless, I don't think anyone knew what to expect with 2017's 4:44. We knew it would be fully produced by No ID, but would it be cruise control Jay-Z or hungry best rapper alive Jay-Z? It's the latter. It's also another unquestionable classic for his catalog. There's an unprecedented level of self-reflection and cultural commentary, a mature album that doesn't preach so much as share. On the song “4:44” he says, “And because I fall short of what I say I'm all about/Your eyes leave with the soul that your body once housed.” Again this feels like an album where he has something to prove to himself. His voice is still essential and influential as ever.
DISCOGRAPHY STAR RATINGS
REASONABLE DOUBT (5/5 Stars)
VOL 1 (4.5/5 Stars)
VOL 2 (3.5/5 Stars)
VOL 3 (3/5 Stars)
DYNASTY: ROC LA FAMILIA (4/5 Stars)
THE BLUEPRINT (5/5 Stars)
THE BLACK ALBUM (5/5 Stars)
BLUEPRINT 2 (5/5 Stars)
KINGDOM COME (2.5/5 Stars)
AMERICAN GANGSTER (4.5/5 Stars)
BLUEPRINT 3 (2.5/5 Stars)
WATCH THE THRONE (3.5/5 Stars)
MAGNA CARTA HOLY GRAIL (2/5 Stars)
4:44 (5/5 Stars)
ESSENTIAL JAY-Z (off the top of my head, probably forgot stuff but...)
- Dead Presidents II
- Politics As Usual
- Streets Is Watching
- Where I'm From
- It's Alright
- So Ghetto
- Dynasty intro
- Heart Of The City
- Song Cry
- Some People Hate
- Laser In Ya Ear freestyle
- Public Service Announcement
- Allure (Just Blaze remix)
- Kingdom Come
- American Dreamin'
- No Hook
- Thank You
- Nickels And Dimes
- The Story Of OJ
- Family Feud
- Marcy Me