Jay-Z (Shawn Corey Carter)
b.Brooklyn, New York. December 4, 1969

1996: Reasonable Doubt. 1997: In My Lifetime, Vol. 1. 1998: Streets Is Watching. 1998: Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life. 1999: Vol. 3... Life and Times of S. Carter. 2000: The Dynasty: Roc La Familia 2001: The Blueprint. 2001: Unplugged. 2002: The Blueprint²: The Gift & the Curse. 2002: The Best of Both Worlds. 2003: The Black Album. 2004: Unfinished Business. 2004: Collision Course. 2006: Kingdom Come. 2007: American Gangster

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.

Songs You Should Have On Your iPod:
What We Do off Philadelphia Freeway
I'll Be off Ill Na Na
Guess Who's Back off The Fix
Best Of Me off Backstage Soundtrack
Is That Your Chick off Coming of Age
Jigga My Nigga off Ryde Or Die Vol. 1
Anything off The Truth
So Ghetto off Vol 3: The Life and Times of S. Carter
It's Hot off Vol 3: The Life and Times of S. Carter
Big Pimpin' off Vol 3: The Life and Times of S. Carter
Girl's Best Friend off Blue Streak OST
Intro off Dynasty Roc La Familia
I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me) off Dynasty Roc La Familia
Stick 2 The Script off Dynasty Roc La Familia
1-900 Hustler off Dynasty Roc La Familia
Where Have You Been of Dynasty Roc La Familia
Hey Papi off The Nutty Professor 2 OST
Excuse Me Miss off The Blueprint 2
The Prelude off Kingdom Come
Oh My God off Kingdom Come
Kingdom Come off Kingdom Come
Show Me What You Got off Kingdom Come

Albums You Should Have on Your iPod:
Reasonable Doubt
In My Lifetime Vol. 1
Vol. 2 Hard Knock Life
The Blueprint
The Black Album


josephlovesit said...

Good thinking dividing between good albums and good features/gems from bad albums. It works especially well for Jay.

I don't know if it's 'cause I only recently heard The Dynasty in full after finding an old CD-R of it in my closet (complete with Sharpie'd Rocafella logo), but I think it's really solid as a transitional album. Better than the really slick stuff of Vol. 3 and later on Blueprint 2/Kingdom Come, but not quite as cohesive or "album-oriented" as The Blueprint. Number 4 or 5 in my top Jay-Z albums. The production is mostly amazing too.

tray said...

So I happen to think that Volume 3 is a lot better than Volume 2 (all of which I don't care for aside from the singles and Reservoir Dogs), and would be curious to know why you disagree.

Christopher said...

Joey: This girl I'm sort of not seriously seeing on campus reminded me there were some cuts I forgot on Dynasty, and I'm thinking 'bout going back to revisit it because I think in light of Kingdom Come and Blueprint 2, there are probably some songs I didn't like back when I copped it around 2002/early 2003 that my Ghostface-stanning/grindcore listening self would dig.

Tray: Really? Volume 3 is pretty much one of three or four albums by Jay that everyone (correctly) ignores. Take "Big Pimpin'" off that album and its pretty much useless, Sigel and Jay's OD verses on "Throw Ya Hands Up" and two or three decent beats notwithstanding.

tray said...

I don't know about everyone ignoring it, noz over on cocaineblunts even has gone so far as to argue it's his best album. I don't agree, but the intro, So Ghetto, Come And Get Me, and There's Been A Murder are all pretty great. Dope Man too if you're into "the media mischaracterizes me unfairly" songs, though it's way too melodramatic for me. I'm a huge fan of S.Carter and Snoopy Track, but I can see where people could not like those.

Christopher said...

Haha. I have a weird masochistic appreciation for Snoopy Track. Like...the beat is just one of those pointlessly dumb but cool sounding things, like "The Potion" from Ludacris' The Red Light District. And Juvenile wins always. But, eh.

If noz really posits that as his best record then he's either being blatantly contrary and reactionary or he has a tin ear.

tray said...

Yeah, well, his argument was, as I recall, that Reasonable Doubt is too derivative, Volume 1 is too mixed, and Blueprint is somehow too dumbed down and the beats are too comfort food. All of which I kinda agree with - but I still wouldn't put Volume 3 first or anything, there are too many forgettable songs.

Christopher said...

Tray: You know, noz has a point there. Although those aspects of the albums shouldn't disqualify their consistency. I mean, if an album is good, that fact should takes primacy and then the second level of analysis should be those things noz pointed out.

tray said...

Yeah, I mean, Reasonable Doubt is hella derivative, and it's not seeing the classics of its time, and parts are quite forgettable, but still, anything with D'evils or Can I Live on it pretty automatically tops Volume 3.

PRETYBOI said...

i'm interested to hear what you think about danger mouse's the grey album. not in terms of whether you think it was a worthwhile endeavor or not, or corny or not, but more how you would situate the act that precipitated it (the releasing of the a cappellas for every track on the album) in jay's career. it was a deliberate move, and obviously anticipated the subsequent deluge of remixes/mashups. it also ran counter to general defjam/roc practice who were not even in the practice of putting a cappellas on their 12"s. so it was obviously a calculated play to reignite interest in the album a few months after its initial release once all the remixers had had time to chipchop jay's vocals over their sonic backdrop of choice.. renewed interest in the album probably gave it a 'second life' and a corresponding bump in sales--the same kind of doubledipping w/ slightly altered product that one sees w/ chopped and screwed versions of southern records.

SO, my question is: who was it that pushed for the release of the a cappellas, jay, dame dash, some defjam or parent company exec?

the only jay a cappellas prior to those that i'm aware of are from soundtracks that spawned 12"s (some track from 'black gangsta' and something from the movie 'sprung' are the two i have).

Christopher said...

Boi- Shit, I completely forgot about that. I still think releasing acapellas is one of the more brilliant moves any rapper could make. Especially if you're aware of how good your material is or how iconic you are as a musical persona/artist. So, to answer your question, I doubt Dash or Lyor or whomever had any really hand in the idea, it was just, like his frequent allusions in verse to UGK or Snoop or Biggie, Jay doing the most hip-hop thing he could while also considering what was good for the brand.

Its one of the few things he's done in the last 4 years I can cosign.

Hugo Alexandre said...

What a dope account of Jay's history at that point in time when you wrote it. I feel the same way, as I'm sure most original fans do. His lyricism has become a joke. Surprisingly, Common has more of a flow/presence now, although his lyrics are still meh. Good read!