So during game five of the NBA Finals, this happened:
Jay-Z is probably the only person in the world who can debut an album teaser during the biggest basketball game of the year to date, and OVERSHADOW THE GAME. Here are my two takeaways from the video:
1. Somehow, I didn’t know what Rick Rubin looked like until now – After embarrassing myself on Twitter, I learned that the giant-bearded man in the video was none other than Rick Rubin. Of course I knew who Rubin was, but for some reason I never knew what he looked like. I always assumed Rubin was a skinny, malnourished, chain smoking genius-looking guy. I never thought that the god of music would look like God.
I basically pulled the blogger version of Donovan McNabb not knowing that NFL games tie after overtime. But hey, even the greats make mistakes. Anywho, I just wanted to admit that I never knew what Rick Rubin looked like, and if that means I’ve lost all credibility in your eyes when it comes to talking about rap or music in general, I understand.
2. We just witnessed a historic collaboration of musical minds – Jay’s commercial give us insight into something that is typically out of bounds for music fans. Witnessing part of his creative process was inspiring, exciting, and extremely entertaining. We can only hope that decades from now, people will talk about “that fateful gathering” of producers and artists, leading to the creation of a masterwork. This may someday be the hip-hop equivalent of Percy and Mary Shelley’s visit to Lord Byron at Lake Geneva, which spawned the creation of Frankenstein and Dracula (I’m also just assuming Rick Rubin was there at this point).
For some reason, watching the Jiggaman work with all of these producer legends made me start to think historically about his music, and inspired me to create this “Beginner’s Guide to Jay-Z’s Musical History.”
I was six when Reasonable Doubt came out, but I was lucky enough to inherit a music collection that included almost everything by anyone ever, so I was able to learn about the genre by looking at the big picture, which in my opinion is essential to truly appreciate an artist. For example, if you had heard Yeezus in isolation, you’d think Kanye was an egomaniacal sociopath on the verge of suicide…Okay, you still might think that, but you can at least understand how ‘Ye got to this point, both emotionally and musically, which offers an entirely different perspective about the album.
Could you imagine only knowing Hov from Kingdom Come and onwards? That should be illegal, right? Hence my motivation for offering at least a cursory background of Jay-Z’s musical growth/progression (not to mention I just wanted an excuse to re-listen to all of his albums after seeing that commercial). If you’ve never heard Jay’s entire catalogue, or if you just want to re-live the glory days, this post is for you. Consider this a musical version of watching Michael Jordan youtube highlights (Ooh! Did we just create a comparison mechanism for the rest of this piece? Well, whenever it’s convenient…)
Again, I’m merely focusing on Jay’s musical output, which is only a portion of his actual commercial success, obviously. But even just the music will require a long, extensive piece. This will be monstrous, because Jay-Z deserves monstrous. Let’s get started.
The Arrival – Reasonable Doubt, In My Lifetime Vol. 1
Jigga’s success came almost immediately upon his arrival to the music scene, as his first two albums both went platinum. This is especially impressive in a pre-mixtape era, since it was much harder for new artists to build hype before their first release. Think about the present day; how much of a flop would Meek Mill’s Dreams and Nightmares have been if he hadn’t fostered a monstrous fan base from his mixtapes (D&N sold 350,000ish copies to date, which is a disappointment)? Considering the climate Hov broke into makes his early success that much more spectacular.
Notable Tracks: Um, all of ’em? But specifically, “Can’t Knock the Hustle (feat. Mary J. Blige),” “Politics as Usual,” “Brooklyn’s Finest (feat. Notorious B.I.G.),” “Dead Presidents II,” “D’evils,” “Can I Live,” “Coming of Age (feat. Memphis Bleek).”
Despite a 17+ year career, Jay-Z’s first album still might be his best (cue to my inner rap fan nodding emphatically), featuring gritty production and some of Jay’s best lyrical efforts ever. The best way I can describe Reasonable Doubt is the only time we hear Hov rap “hungrily.” Allow me a tangent for a moment:
The reason we glorify the early efforts from all the greats is because this is when they were desperate to succeed. They had no choice but to pour everything they had into the album; if they didn’t, they wouldn’t get another chance. Music that comes early in rappers’ careers is raw by nature. A budding artist has to be autobiographical and committed because they don’t have an alternative. They haven’t been “tainted” by success, fame, and money, so to speak.
It might not be fair, but artists’ subsequent albums are often judged against their initial works because these are the artists at their purest. How many people have you heard say, “Well it’s not College Dropout,” or “It’s not Illmatic,” or “It’s not The Infamous?” You can even look at this on a smaller/more modern scale. Wale’s best work remains The Mixtape About Nothing, before he got rich. Do you remember how hard Wiz Khalifa was on Prince of the City: Welcome to Pistolvania before he could only rap about weed and money? Hell, Rick Ross really brought it on Port of Miami before he became Rozay.
Why is this relevant? Reasonable Doubt is a classic by virtue. Jay-Z had to rap hungrily since he hadn’t tasted success yet, and the result was a legendary 55 minutes of hip-hop. We can’t blame Jay for never getting back to the style of this album, because his life was different afterwards. With success, his inspiration and motivations had to change. Reasonable Doubt is Jordan in ’84, Picasso’s “Blue Period,” and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. They were never replicated, because they couldn’t be. That’s what makes them so special.
In My Lifetime Vol. 1
Jay’s sophomore album went platinum as well, but captured a somewhat strange transitional period for Jigga. The content of the album vacillates between the street-hustling of Reasonable Doubt and the more commercial “I’m rich, biatch!” attitude of the period. Things become even more complicated because the production is extremely polished and mainstream.
Did Jay-Z “sell out” by his second album? Not entirely. In My Lifetime Vol. 1 shows us a Jay-Z who has already seen more success than anyone could ask for, but isn’t ready to give up his humble roots. Teaming up with Bad Boy to make this album all but ensured a long, successful career, but it also closed the door on ever returning to hard core hip-hop. Jay-Z was destined to change the world, but to paraphrase Karl Rove’s (mistaken, pathetic, and ignorant) stance, “There’s no room for thugs in the White House.”
The Birth of a Mogul – Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life, Vol. 3…Life and Times of S. Carter, The Dynasty: Roc La Familia
Within two years of Reasonable Doubt‘s debut, Jay was already using his eye for talent to include in his work, and introduced us to some household names in rap for years to come (and some not so much). Even this early in his career, we could see that Jay-Z loved to be the guy who “discovered” someone, and that affinity is clear in these albums.
Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life
Notable Tracks: “Hand It Down (Intro) (feat. Memphis Bleek),” “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem),” “N***a What, N***a Who (Originator ’99) (feat. Amil & Big Jaz),” “Money, Cash, Hoes (feat. DMX),” “Can I Get A… (feat. Amil & Ja Rule),” “It’s Like That (feat. Kid Capri),” “Money Ain’t a Thang (feat. Jermaine Dupri).”
After the passing of Biggie and Tupac, Vol. 2 is the first album where Jay-Z was the guy in hip-hop, and he used this status to work with anyone he wanted. Hov basically uses this album to say, “I’m the king of rap right now, so let me introduce my court.” He’s not even on the intro, giving the first verse of the entire album to Memphis Bleek. Look at this feature lineup!
Memphis Bleek, Da Ranjahz, Big Jaz, DMX, Too $hort, Amil, Ja Rule, Foxy Brown, The LOX, Beanie Sigel, Sauce Money, Kid Capri, Jermaine Dupri.
Oh, and it worked. The album went 5x platinum, won the Grammy for “Best Rap Album,” and Jay rapped on maybe half of it.
Vol. 3…Life and Times of S. Carter
With Vol. 3 S-Dot tried to recapture the rawness of Reasonable Doubt, but because of impossibilities we’ve already discussed, he wasn’t necessarily successful. With all of the money, success, fame, and power Jay had already gathered by this point, the gritty angle of the album just didn’t feel sincere (although he did stab a guy right around this time…). There’s a reason “Big Pimpin'” was the biggest single on the record; by this point, fans knew that Jigga was rich, so they were drawn to his lavish lifestyle. You don’t watch MTV Cribs to see where famous people grew up, you watch to see their mansions now. Hence the issue here.
Another reason the concept struggled is that Jigga still had tons of features. Remember, Reasonable Doubt was largely a solo project with a few well placed additions from others. With so many extra personnel on Life and Times, it still felt like a rich man’s effort as opposed to an aesthetically motivated one. Essentially, we were witnessing the death of Jay-Z the hustler and the birth of Jay-Z the mogul.
It’s not like Vol. 3 flopped or anything. The album went triple platinum, for goodness sake. I’m just saying that musically, it wasn’t Jay’s best decision. Not that he cares what I think, I’m sure.
The Dynasty: Roc La Familia
Notable Tracks: “I Just Wanna Love U (Give it 2 Me) (feat. Pharrell Williams),” “This Can’t Be Life (feat. Beanie Sigel & Scarface) (YEEZY PRODUCTION ALERT),” “You, Me, Him, and Her (feat. Memphis Bleek, Beanie Sigel, & Amil),” “Guilty Until Proven Innocent (feat. R. Kelly).”
You know you’re a big deal when an attempted collab project turns into your solo album. Even so, Roc La Familia features many of Jay’s biggest discoveries. Do the names KANYE WEST, JUST BLAZE, and THE NEPTUNES ring a bell? The ripple effect from this album is undeniable, as we see the precursors to Best of Both Worlds and Watch the Throne. The Dynasty not only confirmed Jay’s skillful eye for talent, but also cemented his status as the single biggest name in rap music. Listening to this album is like watching the walls of Rome being built. An empire was born.
The Magnum Opus – The Blueprint
Simply put, Jay-Z at the peak of his powers.
Notable Tracks (This should be the whole album, but I’ll try to pick my favorites): “Takeover,” “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” “Girls, Girls, Girls,” “U Don’t Know,” “Hola’ Hovito,” “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love),” “Song Cry,” “Renegade (feat. Eminem),” “Girls, Girls, Girls Part II.”
Despite turmoil in his personal life, Hova put together what many consider his masterwork, and it’s very hard to argue differently. Really, the album speaks for itself, but I’ll try to add some notes. Let’s break the analysis down into categories:
Future Implications: Production-wise, we’re basically witnessing the coming out parties for Kanye and Just Blaze. Yeezy put together “Takeover,” Izzo,” “Heart of the City,” “Never Change,” and “GGGII,” all classics. Blaze offered up “GGG,” “U Don’t Know,” “Song Cry,” and “Breathe Easy.” When those two future legends are responsible for nine tracks on your album, you’re almost guaranteed a 5-mic rating.
Legendary Stories: Whenever something great is crafted, there are always amazing tales about the creation process (OMG, did you know Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel on his back?!?!), and The Blueprint is no exception. From the extremely serious beat making competition between ‘Ye and Just Blaze, to Jay finishing the verses to “Heart of the City” in three minutes, the legacy of the album only grows.
The What-Ifs: What if “Heart of the City” went to DMX like it was supposed to? What if Ghostface Killah took “Girls, Girls, Girls” as was intended? What if the girl who contributed the vocals to “Izzo” derailed the song due to her lack of a credit being given? What if September 11 hadn’t overshadowed the release of the album? What if Jay hadn’t been prodded into responding to Prodigy’s and Nas’ disses?
- Accolades: 5-mic rating from The Source, numerous album of the year/decade lists, #252 on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of all Time.”
- The birth of sampling – Kanye and Just Blaze’s production techniques from this album led to massive emulation. Before The Blueprint, no one really used classic samples to make beats. Now, sampled beats are like cell phones: how did anyone get by without them?
- Two essential Jay-Z nicknames created – Jigga and Hov (that would be enough to make the album classic by itself, if you ask me).
The Greatest Beef of All Time: I know it’s not the most important aspect of The Blueprint, but this is probably my favorite thing to talk about from the album. By the time The Blueprint came out, Hov and company were already deep into beefs with Prodigy and Nas, and “Takeover” was the next chapter of the battle. Jay effectively put away Prodigy with his second verse on the song, and then later added another verse to go after Nas, which um, is a BIG FREAKING DEAL. Jay-Z was clever, incisive, and convincing in his attack. In fact, people familiar with the beef were worried that Nas’ career could be in jeopardy after the track came out.
We all know what happened next: Nas came back with “Ether,” widely regarded as the greatest diss track ever. Hell, “ethering” became a verb afterward. Obviously Nas won the beef musically (there were other diss tracks after this but they were of little consequence), but the amazing thing about Hov is that this didn’t even remotely affect his credibility. Anyone else’s reputation would’ve been crushed, but the beef only made both rappers even more popular. In fact, you could make the argument that Nas’ career was revitalized simply because of the respect he gained for out-dueling Jay. And, the most ridiculous indicator of Jay’s invincibility is the fact that he eventually signed Nas.
(I want to be very clear about one point, however: I’ve been of the stance for years that Nas is the best pure rapper who ever lived, and his destruction of Jay-Z on “Ether” is one of the key factors of the argument. Regardless of Jay’s superior commercial success, my mind isn’t changing any time soon. But we’re writing about Jigga’s greatness here, so it bears mentioning that Jay’s mogul-ness did culturally overwhelm any musical triumph Nas might have had.)
(Also one more fun little tidbit from the “Takeover” fallout: did you know that Nas disliked The Roots for years because they were Jay’s live band during Unplugged, so participated in playing the music during Hov’s performance of the song?)
Regardless of the result of the feud, the fact that Jay was a part of it is meaningful, and The Blueprint is a defining moment of Jay-Z’s career. By serving as the voice of the soul-sample production movement, helping to validate Eminem as more than just “the best white rapper,” providing a context for “U Don’t Know” (perhaps Jay’s hardest song), and highlighting the album with “Heart of the City” (if you made a bracket of the best Hov songs ever, this is at least a number one seed), The Blueprint is immortalized in rap history as one of the most significant creations of all time.
The Aftermath – The Best of Both Worlds (R. Kelly Collaboration), The Blueprint 2: The Gift & the Curse
After The Blueprint, expectations for any Jay-Z music were at an impossibly high level. Jay responded admirably with his next projects, and while they weren’t anywhere close to the level of his previous triumph, his work was still the gold standard of rap at the time.
The Best of Both Worlds (R. Kelly Collaboration)
Notable Tracks: “Best of Both Worlds.”
At first, I was alarmed to realize that this album was no longer in my iTunes for some reason, but after going back through it, I was almost relieved. The title track is really the only one of any consequence, and put simply the idea for this album was better in theory than in practice. Any real commercial success the album might have received was derailed by R. Kelly’s child pornography charges, so the album finished far from its potential. The insane thing is that “far from its potential” at this point for Jay-Z was a #2 debut on the Billboard 200.
Regardless of the album’s supposed failure, you can’t really hold it against Jay-Z because it was more of a side project than anything, and the contribution to the record wasn’t solely his.
The Blueprint 2: The Gift & the Curse
Notable Tracks: “Hovi Baby,” “‘03 Bonnie & Clyde (feat. Beyonce Knowles),” “Excuse Me Miss (feat. Pharrell),” “The Bounce (feat. Kanye West),” “U Don’t Know (Remix) (feat. M.O.P.),” “Blueprint2.” – (Keep in mind that the large number of notable tracks is because the album was two discs)
BP2 returned to Jay’s tendency to operate as a host as he featured new artists such as Young Chris and M.O.P., but the album was still extremely successful, topping the Billboard as expected. Honestly, at this point Jay could have released a recording of him farting for 30 minutes, and it still would have topped the charts. Credit Jay for not mailing this album in, however; the effort is still there and makes The Blueprint 2 a respectable follow up item in Jay-Z’s catalogue.
The BP2 also had some important implications, most notably Hov’s collaboration with Beyonce leading to his eventual marriage with “the hottest chick in the game,” but also M.O.P.’s first (and only, really) success at the commercial stage (“Ante Up” and “Stomp Da S**t Out Ya” are both hits, but you get my point).
The Last Hurrah (sort of) – The Black Album
In sports terms, the equivalent of Mike winning his sixth ring.
The Black Album
The Black Album was originally billed as Jay’s last studio album before he retired, and the “farewell” theme is obvious throughout. Jigga is more introspective, honest, autobiographical, and realistic than any of his work besides Reasonable Doubt, and yet he finds room for a sort of earned self-indulgence as well. To put the album in simple terms, it’s an hour long declaration, stating in Jay’s own words, “Times that by my influence on pop culture/I’m supposed to be number one on everybody list/We’ll see what happens when I no longer exist.”
Production-wise, Jay used every resource he had, including contributions from Just Blaze, Kanye West, The Neptunes, Timbaland, 9th Wonder, Eminem, Rick Rubin, and DJ Quik. Obviously the level of polish is absurdly high, but the vast amount of beat makers offers an almost episodic feel to the album as well. It’s as if Jay is fondly looking back on his greatest moments, relishing in each before moving on to the next. Every song is different, yet equally meaningful, and combined they create an even more powerful mosaic.
Further proof of The Black Album‘s significance is the fact that there was enough demand to release an A cappella version, which led to numerous meaningful mashup projects. This includes Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album (A mash of Jay’s album with The Beatles’ White Album), a mix with Weezer (The Black and Blue Album), and the commercial release of Collision Course, a collaborative remix effort between Jay and Linkin Park.
Want more proof this album was important? Here’s a list of people who sampled The Black Album in some way: T.I. (“Bring ‘Em Out”), Joe Budden, Cassidy (“I’m a Hustla”), Juvenile, Clipse, Beanie Sigel, RZA, Jedi Mind Tricks, and Tyler the Creator. All that comes from one guy. From one album.
The best way to classify The Black Album historically is to look at it as a confirmation of what we all expected from Jay when he first arrived, a Herculean ascent to Olympus. In the same way that we just knew Jordan would change the NBA, there was never a doubt that Jay would transform the way we looked at rap music. In the same way we just knew Jordan’s last (supposed) moment would be an iconic, game-winning shot, it was only appropriate that Jay-Z’s finale would be an absolutely classic, signature sign off.
The Dark Ages – Kingdom Come, American Gangster, The Blueprint 3
You can’t really blame Jay for wanting to come back since everything he makes is guaranteed platinum, but something just wasn’t right…
Jay-Z’s comeback was met with the appropriate fanfare, but also with the necessarily astronomical expectations that accompany such a comeback. In all honesty Kingdom Come isn’t a bad album; if it were in the middle of his catalogue, it would be a welcome addition. The issue is that for a “comeback album,” Hov’s offering was disappointing. I’m not saying it was for lack of effort, but the CEO certainly showed some rust when he returned.
Despite the lukewarm reception, the album went multiplatinum, and its largest singles are on par with the excellence that anyone would expect from Jay-Z. However, the questions now started to be asked: “Is Jay washed up? Should he have just stayed retired? Is he threatening his own legacy now?” For maybe the first time ever, Jay-Z seemed vulnerable musically, and these doubts wouldn’t go away unless he proved to all of us that he still had it.
Hov’s second attempt of the “post Black Album” era was much improved. Using inspiration from the Denzel Washington movie of the same name, Jigga offered a reflective and insightful narrative throughout the album, and recaptured some of the rhyming skill that fans were concerned had disappeared during his brief retirement.
With that said, American Gangster was far from convincing enough to silence any of the criticisms that had emerged since his return. It was hard not to feel like the album was just a way of capitalizing off of the success of the film, and if this was Jay’s goal, he succeeded; the album went platinum (of course it did), even though it was briefly removed from iTunes. Still, hardcore fans couldn’t help but worry that the epic, groundbreaking Jay-Z from yesteryear was never going to return, and that Hov would continue to just ride the legacy of his previous, pre-retirement successes.
The Blueprint 3
Notable Tracks: “Thank You,” “D.O.A. (Death of Autotune),” “Run This Town (feat. Rihanna & Kanye West),” “Empire State of Mind (feat. Alicia Keys),” “On to the Next One (feat. Swizz Beatz),” “Already Home (feat. Kid Cudi).”
Sadly, Jay regressed with BP3, seemingly hiding behind popular production and big-name features. While some songs showed promise (see the notables), the rest felt like fluff. Even the album’s best singles would be afterthoughts on some of Hov’s other works. BP3 felt the same as The Godfather III did: due to its role in the trilogy its impact was undeniable, but that alone couldn’t make it worth experiencing.
The album’s legacy will most likely be headlined by the success of “Empire State of Mind,” and I suppose that’s the best case scenario at this point. Jigga and Alicia Keys combined to craft an anthem for the country’s most famous city, and that’s a feat worthy of praise. But don’t for one second think that this sole commercialized item redeems The Blueprint 3 in any way.
Jay was running out of time to re-prove himself, and I think he was starting to figure that out.
Signs of Life – Watch the Throne (Kanye West Collaboration)
How do you save your career? Joining forces with Kanye isn’t a bad start.
Watch the Throne
It only seemed natural that Hovie unite with Kanye, since they had worked together for their entire careers, except this was maybe the first time they operated as equals. The album was bombastic, braggadocios, and some other adjective Don King would use, as both millionaires used most of their time to talk about how rich, powerful, and influential they are.
When it comes to assessing Jay’s part of the album however, Watch the Throne felt overwhelmingly Kanye-ish. The production had his fingerprints all over it, and their verses were equal at best. ‘Ye tended to be more socially critical on most songs, while Jay stayed within the safer bubble of “I’m a mogul, mu’f***a.”
I’m not saying that the album was bad. In fact, I think it was very good; the production concept was extremely innovative, and the word-play and flow from each rapper was solid. However, it was hard to walk away from Watch the Throne thinking, “Okay, Jay’s back.”
This effort was certainly a step in the right direction. Watch the Throne signaled an understanding on Hov’s part that the landscape of rap was changing, and that other musical influences were bleeding through everywhere. Jay had to adapt, and this album showed that he was willing to do that. Yet, the problem still remained: would Jigga ever create something that was distinctly “Jay-Z” again? Instead of catching up with the new rules, would he be able to re write them like he once did?
The Reaffirmation – Magna Carta Holy Grail
You can just feel it, can’t you? There’s something special brewing in that musty studio. The greatest minds in music today are coming together to lift Jay-Z back to his rightful stature, and they won’t stop until they do. Magna Carta Holy Grail has the makings of a last stand, one more signature statement to disprove all the doubters.
Maybe I’m just buying into the hype of the teaser video, or maybe I’m overly romanticizing the legacy implications that are at stake with this album. Maybe I just want to believe that Jay-Z has one more moment of brilliance left. Painfully, we won’t know until July 4th.
Putting Jay-Z In Perspective: The Big Picture
Most number one solo albums ever (11). More than Elvis. Released a studio album every single year from 1996-2013 (exceptions: 2005, 2008, 2012). Largely responsible for the arrival of Kanye West and others. Since 1998, featured on over 40 songs, including eight Billboard top tens. Every single album he has ever made has gone platinum. Every single one.
The insane thing about Jay-Z is that the numbers don’t even do him justice. He is by far the most commercially successful rapper who ever existed, yet he’s more than that. From 1996-2003, he set the standard by which all other rap music will ever be judged. He’s the inspiration for nearly every rapper currently making music.
As I wrote the guide (if you can even call it that anymore), it was hard not to get caught up in the greatness and wonder that are inherent in Jay’s career. You try to be objective about his impact, and you try not to overstate things, but it’s impossible not to. Jay-Z was a superlative by nature, and he’s the only rapper that you can describe that way. Call Biggie and Tupac the pioneers if you want, call Nas the purest or the “realest” if you want (and I shall), call Eminem the revolutionary; none of them has ever approached the apex of influence, success, and overwhelming massiveness that was Jay-Z at his peak.
I found myself having trouble finding a way to end this piece. It’s impossible to close a story that hasn’t ended yet, but it almost doesn’t even matter what happens with Magna Carta Holy Grail or whatever comes after it. The scale of Jay’s legacy is too grand to move the needle one way or the other. If he puts out another classic, wins more grammies, or sells more platinum, great; throw it on the pile. If the rest of his music bombs, so what? Do we really deserve to ask for more than Jay-Z has already given us?
So I’ll just leave you with this simple final musing. 50 years from now, when we’re all listening to rap on the oldies station with our grandchildren in the car and “Heart of the City” comes on, what will you feel?
I’ll see you July 4th.