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Biographical Dictionary of Rap: Jay-Z


Like a week ago, Christopher posted an excellent entry on Jay-Z that I totally forgot to mention. I usually tease you with a notable paragraph from the piece, but this one’s too good to do that to. Check it out:

“Thurston Moore, in Punk:Attitude opined during the standard late 70’s/80’s NYC comparison between the adjacent development of punk and hip-hop as art/social movements that while the punk kids eschewed all material signifiers of wealth for myriad ideological reasons, hip-hop embraced and celebrated money and fat gold rope chains and all that shit. For a number of historical and sociological reasons, this was an insightful, if obvious, comment on the capitalist spirit that came to represent mainstream rap and is fully embodied, like Leviathan to government, by the Unitarian God MC, Jay-Hova.

Jay-Z, first and foremost, is probably the most important musical artist to me personally. Not necessarily my favorite and certainly not the best, but someone I’ve grown up with since I was 8 or 9, when I used to listen to the radio all the time because music had yet to be demystified to me so everything was new and wonderful and interesting and every radio station was my favorite, even classical and jazz. During that time I started listening to New York’s own infamous Hot 97 radio station, which itself embodies a lot of the negatives and embarrassing fuckery of hip-hop this decade, where I first heard “Ain’t No Nigga”. Around ‘96 I would see tons of Pac and Biggie videos on MTV Jams, but Jay didn’t really get that much airplay outside of New York at the time. I remember dueting the hook with this chick named Sharde in the second grade or so who I had a crush on for most of elementary school while a classmate who was trying to mac her was getting all salty. Jay served as the non-pop soundtrack to me life as a little kid in Brooklyn, back when my block would have parties in the summer and my grandfather would get ripped on Friday nights with his old-ass Caribbean friends and listen to 80’s funk and recent shit like Domino and TLC.

My love of my borough and my neighborhood became a love of Jay-Z somewhere around age 10 when Biggie died. Before Jay, Biggie and Pac were my favorite rappers, but I was too young to really get emotional over their deaths. School continued, and Puffy and Mase were making singles so it wouldn’t phase me until late into high school, much like the death of Kurt Cobain. But in the process of the two biggest solo rappers getting gunned down, this guy who bled Brooklyn, specifically Bed-Stuy somehow started ascending into the position left in the wake of their passing. Then Jay’s videos started getting more airplay. I got to see “Who You Wit II” on MTV Jams when they were about to cancel it and it was relegated to a ghostly hostless video block full of posthumous Biggie videos and shit like “Breaker, Breaker” by GZA. Then during the apparent rebirth/rebranding of Def Jam and release of Hard Knock Life, dude was everywhere. When he played the 1999 VMA’s, he kept shit Brooklyn. It gave us the continued aplomb to, honestly, shit on all of the other boroughs who at the time didn’t really have much going for them on the East Coast.We were obnoxious and almost nationalistic in our pride, but who could blame us? Our boy was the king. Still not huge on a national level the way other rappers were, but well on his way and definitely, through successful singles and critical reverence, got bigger with each album. Plus it didn’t hurt that dude quickly became king of the club “bangers”.

Even when Jay faltered, like on the Vol. 3 The Life and Times of S. Carter and The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, he would still have 4 singles and corresponding videos out, non-album airplay, multi-platinum sales and the reverence of almost every rap fan, or at the least every rap fan under 30, for sure. In retrospect, that success backed up his transparent claims to be “a business, maaaaan”. I’m not sure if at some point in the mid-90’s he had taken some Learning Annex marketing/financing classes but like any good capitalist, he corresponded to changes in the marketplace quickly and flirted with the commonly accepted concept of art only when it seemed prudent to do so.

Everything from his rap style to his image shifted every two records or so as East Coast rap flirted with bigger, less basement-y and sample-laden beats. In an early video for a track from about ‘95 back when Jay sort of looked like a 6′+ version of Skee-Lo called “I Can’t Get Wit’ That” the video was done in the projects and he was dressed like any dude would be on a summer day in the Stuy. But by the time his first two albums dropped, it was mob imagery, tailored suits, expensive leather, Cuban cigars, etc., etc. It was obviously in reaction to the success of Nas’ second album and Raekwon’s “Purple Tape”, and maybe to a lesser extent recent albums by Kool G Rap. The flash and glitz of the jiggy era lasted until DMX helped changed the template and took everything back to the hardness that had been excised by the Bad Boy model, and Jay followed in suit with Timbs, white tees and du-rags and proceeded to drop an album that was essentially nothing but singles, a large portion of which got heavy video airplay on the Box and MTV.

The business model between 1999 and 2001 was a weird calculated mix of club rap, confessional songs, usually about absent fathers and family, and coke rap. However, the two-album rule remained in effect and coming off the cocky, self-indulgent brank marketing posse record that was Roc La Familia, the brand had to evolve, thus defining the sound of the decade, “chipmunk soul”, with The Blueprint. It could be argued that marketing an album as more confessional and soulful and the ensuing deluge of critical acclaim was just as calculated as the fall Roc-A-Wear lineup, but getting that boost from the acclaim was probably the last time his business acumen and his product would converge with good results. With the release of possibly the worst double album ever, a record that somehow managed to sound glossier than Rock La Familia and be filled with more filler than Vol 3. and yet go multi-platinum, Blueprint 2. Even as much as I enjoyed “Excuse Me Miss” seeing fellow half-caste Lenny Kravitz embarrass himself with Jay on SNL doing “Guns and Roses” only seemed to backup concerns that Jay had finally fallen the fuck off after 6 years.

So what do you do? You cravenly release a single disc edition of the same abortion, then announce your retirement and “boredom”. With you hitmaking status cemented, two critically acclaimed albums, two great records and three or so bricks content-wise, it seemed wise for Jay to fall back and then employ the law of supply-and-demand to not only make himself more valuable than he was during the Blueprint 2-era, but to ignite discussion, rumor, analysis and ensure, with a previously unheard act of “retiring” from rap setting precedent and ensuring stannery for years to come. Though The Black Album was disappointing due to a few instances of lax quality control and the seeming finality of it all, he went out on a decent note.

Until he realized he needed more edible diamonds for his Cristal and put out two tag-team partial-births with R. Kelly and Linkin Park, respectively, thus annihilating almost all coolness and mystery and goodwill his announcement may have produced. Not only was his commercialism unwarranted at this point, it was wholly inefficient, as the Roc began to fall apart, leaving Kanye West the sole non-Jay-Z act to succeed. 50 Cent would then usurp Jay’s throne on all fronts and rap went through a Southern renaissance of sorts commercially. And then in a series of predictable and disappointing moves, Jay returns after information leaks about Kingdom Come, and drops his second worse LP to date, a commercially crass and middling attempt at redefining himself and expanding beyond the 3 or 4 themes he’s always rapped about. From the afterthought album cover to the labored rhyming to the unforgivable amount of tepid R&B tracks that were surely left over from B’Day, it still managed to push units and sate his pop fans but turned to be a huge mistake, a rare one for Jay in which his capitalism would actual diminish his returns and success and render him an afterthought within the rapidly moving rap landscape. Even his forced movie tie-in with American Gangster, that managed to have a surprising amount of good, though not essential songs, showed signs of Jay being lost. And for a laundry list of reasons, I was honestly angry. Angry that he’d do everything people predicted, angry that he’d push out a late-term of an album, and angry that he’d lost his step and that his idea of lyrical maturity was ripping off GAP-era Common’s corniness, but in a higher tax bracket. NYC rap was, and is dead and there would not be a Superman to save it from Papoose or MIMS. Jay’s hardline financial ambition seemed sad for how unnecessary it was and how much of a compulsion it seems and how much of his “cool factor” and mystique was sacrificed for it. His comparisons to the Grateful Dead were apt, as, masterful live act he had become, he was becoming very much a Madonna/Rolling Stones sort of artist, pumping out lackluster records and opening themselves up to brutal critical derision in making themselves a shallow touring act.

And, beef with lyrics, the failure of the ROC, his popularization of the “hustla not rapper” breed of MC’s, whisper rapping and etc aside, the tragedy to me personally of Jay-Z is that I no longer felt that personal connection to who he was and what he represented. When I see him now, I don’t think of Brooklyn, I think of Foxwoods, Las Vegas, the Bellagio and whatever gaudy casino is in Dubai. In his never-ending consumption, he had completely lost the plot, and in that sense and more, he is hip-hop.”

Written by Brandon

November 7th, 2008 at 3:50 am

2 Responses to 'Biographical Dictionary of Rap: Jay-Z'

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  1. Beyonce Knowles is one of my top celebs in the world. I definitely wish she keeps on performing.

    Veda Teel

    18 Apr 10 at 10:21 pm

  2. This is very useful article! I’m searching something like this to do my projectThank you for sharing!

    Oleta Massed

    19 Aug 13 at 6:23 pm

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