Perfect Sound Forever

Jay-Z


On to the Next One
By Brian Parker
(August 2010)

The Blueprint drops on September 11, 2001. I'm eleven years old, sitting on a school bus midway between Norfolk and Hampton, Virginia, trying to determine exactly what the World Trade Center is. I had already been to camp in the summer where I would hone my skillful use of vulgar language and start mackin' on older women--thirteen-year-old girls about to pass into the otherworldly halls of public high school. I'd already experienced Shady's The Marshall Mathers LP and Dre's The Chronic 2001. I copped ‘em from a friend whose mom didn't care about the word "fuck." Major events of the year: I discovered that "World Trade Center" was the actual name of the "Twin Towers." I had an extremely difficult time grasping the basic concepts of algebra. I memorized nearly every word of Jay-Z's The Blueprint.

Jay-Z's albums generally contain accurate accounts of his life growing up in Marcy Park, Brooklyn. Cooking coke, selling coke, buying cool shit with the same coke money that would make "The Roc" more than a street name for the freebase derivative of coke. We get it. If you're expecting a printed Jay-Z biography after In My Lifetime, Hard Knock Life, and The Life and Times of S. Carter, Volumes I, II and III, respectively, then I hope you're medicated for ADD. What's more fascinating is the musical construction of Jay-Z's verse--his actual rhyme, rhythm, and pitch scheme. It's the essence of the artist himself. Rappers' musicality has only recently been lauded in the popular music world save for some reviews of classic hip-hop records because hip-hop has only recently begun to be considered music. We can thank T-Pain for bringing Auto-Tuned diatonic pitches into the rap world. We can thank Jay-Z for making "D.O.A. (Death of Autotune)" shortly thereafter.

Jay-Z's rapping style mimics the rhythms of the records his parents played at parties as a kid. The laid-back funk of The Jackson 5, Prince, The Commodores, and The Isley Brothers, are not just sample sources for records, but are models of rhythmic inspiration. On Volume 2's "Nigga What Nigga Who," Hovah's in-the-pocket rapping stays a millisecond behind Timbaland's double-time drum pattern. Featured artist Jaz-O's verse--ignore the artists' alliterative aliases--is obviously more pristine and crisp than Jay-Z's, but Jay's words are limper than the lean he sports on a stroll with wife Beyonce. You can almost picture his iconic lips trying to catch up with the speed of his vocal cords. In fact, if the entire vocal track of "Dead Presidents II" were shifted to begin a division of a second earlier, the flow would sit right on top the beat. Laying back a groove that fat is a skill that session players spend their entire lives developing. Hovah had it perfected by age twenty-seven. As for the skeptics, a minor star named Michael Jackson praised the lyrical timing on "Hard Knock Life" during a phone call with Jay-Z. "You was just so in pocket on that record," said the King of Pop, "landing right on the beat. Incredible." Not a minor compliment from the president of the James Brown camp of rhythm.

Rhymewise, Jay-Z often strays away from the A-B or A-A school of verse to conclude the stanza whenever and wherever he sees fit. On "Heart of the City" from Blueprint, Jay meanders around the word "bullshit" only to finish it off with the phrase, "pull this shit" three stanzas later. I can remember tons of kids in high school with dreams of record deals fucking up premeditated freestyles, rhyming a word with itself. It's so damn cool when Jay-Z does it. Another method of showing off his composure and poise.

Then Richard Pryor go and burn up
And Ike and Tina Turner break up
Then I wake up to more bullshit
You knew me before records
You never disrespected me (pause)
Now that I'm successful you'll pull this shit
If groove is a function of rhythm, and rhythm is a function of time, then musical time must be established by another transparent artist. In hip-hop, that's the producer. Jay-Z is famous for his flow and skill and ability to memorize verses, none of which could be showcased without the innovative approaches of the producers he commissions. Creating the debut album Reasonable Doubt, the producers Ski, DJ Premier, Clark Kent, Jaz, Irv Gotti, and Peter Panic gave Jay-Z the space to shine as a new artist. Jay-Z's ability to memorize verses without writing allowed him to focus on his emotional control over what he was saying, speeding up, slowing down, or emphasizing words and phrases. This skill would have fallen flat without the producers' funky, soulful, powerful backing tracks. Although the sound quality of the record is not as crisp as on a masterfully mixed pop album, the gritty samples and fat beats elevate Jay-Z's crisp enunciation and forceful delivery, which has since given ground to the cleanness and volume of contemporary pop production. Since many of the beats on Reasonable Doubt lack the musical variation and modulation of the more through-composed backing tracks of the 2000s, the rapper has to compensate for the repetitiveness of the sample by being improvisatory and dramatic. The stripped down production of Reasonable Doubt was mimicked on Blueprint; funky soul sample plus voice plus impeccable timing is a timeless formula for a classic Jay-Z record.


On the back of the liner notes of Hard Knock Life, Vol. 2, a bordered box contains the name JAY-Z in capital block letters. Listed horizontally beneath are his alter egos, Jigga, Jay-Hovah, and Shawn Carter. Jay's name-game is less schizophrenic than that of Sean Combs (Puffy, Puff Daddy, P. Diddy, Diddy), but still hints at an ongoing identity crisis. But each of Jay's nicknames is more than an indecisive epithet. Consider Jay-Z a corporation with the playful Jigga, the entrepreneurial S-dot-Carter, and the vindictive Hovah his subsidiary brands.

The pseudonym of choice for the songs with blaring trumpet samples, "God MC/Jay-Hovah," appears on songs that secure his kingship of the rap world. "Public Service Announcement" from Black Album contains at least three references to his self-professed divinity, including the complete spelling of H-O-V for those not hooked on phonics. And let's not forget the anthemic "Izzo," in which "H to the Izzo/V to the Izzay" is casually outlined for the listeners with the "izz" infix of Frankie Smith's "Double Dutch Bus." Instead of taking the traditional alpha-rapper route of claiming overused superlatives--the best, the hottest, the flyest, and so forth--Jay-Z places his stamp on the rap world as the omnipotent leader of the streets. "Jay-Hovah" trumps his own pimp, thug, dealer, businessman, and leader roles to assert himself as a pop deity. He bypasses the bullshit and calls himself God.

Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson of the Roots goes as far to boost Jay-Z's ego by giving him the title of Holy Ghost in a rap trinity completed by Rakim and Biggie, as Father and Son respectively. A young Jay-Z entered the game in '96 and has since convinced himself and everyone else in the industry that he really is the "God MC." Seems easy enough right? To sit back and let the holy offerings flow back in the form of cash and checks? No rest on the seventh day for God MC. Biblically, Hova should have disappeared after The Black Album, taking a cue from Christ, hiding out, and leaving the disciples in unrequited anticipation. So what keeps him going? "Can't leave rap alone/the game needs me," he explains on The Blueprint's "Izzo." That was way back in 2001, when Kelefa Sanneh predicted the rap game wouldn't need Jay-Z forever in a valedictory essay called "Gettin' Paid." But instead of the hip-hop world forgetting about Jay, what has occurred is the birth of a symbiotic relationship between artist and fan. The man Shawn Carter needs the rap game, and the rap game needs the idol Jay-Z.

Enter the Kingdom Come dilemma. Really Jay? A follow-up to The Black Album? And that shit sucks? On Kingdom, according to the artist himself, Jay-Z is unsure of whether or not he's become a better rapper, but he's sure that he is more rounded. Yep, that's exactly what a Jay-Z fan wants, a well-rounded, worldly, intelligent Jigga-man. This isn't to say that Jay-Z doesn't have these attributes already. Through the slick business savvy, the unflappable flow, and the street cred, Jay had already proven his well-roundedness. He said that it was very "adult... not Barry Manilow, just intelligent." But everyone I've spoken with about the album says, "I heard it sucked," or "Yeah, it sucked," or "That's the one that sucks, right?" Apparently, no one wants this over-refined Jay-Z. Who would've thought? It seems as if Kingdom Come was a commercial experiment by Jay-Z to determine if his music could finally reflect his age and experience, but it's just on par with Vol. 1, the follow-up to Reasonable Doubt. In rap music, it's damn near impossible to succeed a powerful, classic, artistic album with a sterilized reinvention of oneself.

Chris Ryan exaggerates the Jay-Z ego issue in his essay, "Yeah I'm Threatening Ya!," a satirical trio of fake email messages to Jay-Z. "YOU'RE TRYING TO PARSE THE NIGHTMARE YOU JUST HAD...THAT'S BEEN HAUNTING YOU SINCE YOU RETIRED...YOU ARE NAS." Fortunately, real-life fans are as consistently enthusiastic about Jay-Z as Chris Ryan's fabricated characters are fed up with him. It seems improbable that Mr. Carter wakes up in pools of sweat next to Beyonce because he's worried about becoming Nas. But Jay's anxiety most likely concern his own ability to decode and respond effectively in the current pop market, especially considering the booming Do-It-Yourself music market saturated by Soulja Boy Tell'ems and Ke$has. Jay-Z did it himself, but without the help of viral Internet marketing. He's become accustomed to the last decade's pop industry realizing that he's in charge of changing the game he manufactured.

But Jay-Z doesn't let us see him sweat. Just when we thought he wouldn't return from the ashes left after the Kingdom Come bomb, he follows up with a massive pop album called American Gangster, complete with all the movie skits and dialogues that made Reasonable Doubt a thug's memoir, plus a live band and appearances by Lil' Wayne, Pharrell, and the embodiment of Hov's proposed nightmare (gasp), Nas. The recent Blueprint 3 was a slap in the face to those who didn't believe he'd "come back like Jordan/wearing the 4-5," for a third time. At this point, it seems he never even left the game, or ever planned to. He just took some time off to suit the current shape of the music market. Kingdom Come was that season Michael Jordan spent on the baseball field.

Instead of retaliating against the DIY model, Jay-Z "brushes it off his shoulder" on Blueprint 3, going back to the poppy production that secured his lasting power. "D.O.A" is a big "fuck you" to the artists who poisoned the market with goofily pitched vocal lines. "Empire State of Mind" is a ubiquitous anthem with Alicia Keys belting a hook that makes grown men wish they were ball-less for four minutes and thirty-seven seconds, so that they could sing along. The rest of the album is inspired by the Europeanized pop hits of Lady Gaga and the Black Eyed Peas, only with four-on-the-floor club beats replaced by production from the likes of Timbaland, the Neptunes, Kanye West, No I.D., and Swizz Beatz. You know, the go-to guys. Go ahead, say the album sales model doesn't work anymore, rub it in the faces of every aspiring musician posting demos on Myspace and YouTube. But that's not the case for Jay-Z. He relegated a few rock bands to smaller stages and attracted the hipster crowd at All Points West Festival, Coachella, and calmly responded to an angry Noel Gallagher by leading a crowd at the Glastonbury Festival in singing "Wonderwall."

That bloke from Oasis said I couldn't play guitar
Somebody shoulda told him I'ma fuckin' rockstar
Though Jay-Z's entrepreneurial air now overshadows his O.G. aesthetic, the rapper has had beef with some of the top rap artists in the last decade--2Pac, Nas, Lil Wayne, 50 Cent, and The Game. But like Jay-Z scolds Nas in "Takeover,"from The Blueprint: "I know you missin' all the fame/But along with celebrity comes bout seventy shots to your frame." Ruling the rap world single-handed requires a guerilla-warfare approach to securing your territory. For rappers like Lil Wayne who approach his status, Jay-Z abides by the "can't beat ‘em, join ‘em" axiom. But he has no more beef to grill up with MCs who have fallen off (ahem, 50 Cent, Game). They'd be lucky to be addressed in two beats of a measure.
And all you other cats throwin shots at Jigga
You only get half a bar - fuck y'all niggaz
Whether they be publicity stunts or actual displays of anger and disrespect, the beef and competitiveness is a necessary aspect of being in the hip-hop industry, especially if you're trying to hold onto your heavyweight championship.


The most stubbornest Jay-Z controversy is the businessperson versus artist debate. This clamor comes from listeners and non-listeners alike--anyone who doesn't quite understand that Jay-Z was a businessperson way before he was a rapper. Though his trade changed from dealing crack rocks to founding "The Roc" to being president of Def Jam, owner of the Nets, and beyond, he's been a businessperson since his early twenties. Didn't you critics listen to "Dead Presidents II?"

I dabbled in crazy weight without rap, I was crazy straight
Potnah, I'm still spendin money from eighty-eight... what?
Now that rap has been absorbed by the popular mainstream, Jay-Z and other rappers are expected to behave like pop stars and singer-songwriters and pretend to have an unreal amount of integrity and humility. That's just not the way hip-hop works. Listener buys rapper's album, rapper boasts about how much money he makes off of said listener buying said album. That's the model, give or take. It's a "you do you, I do me, and I don't give a fuck as long as I gets mines" type of business. It's called capitalism, and I welcome you to America. Jay-Z for Prez!

Blueprint 3, is laced with the Euro-dance synthesizers and computerized programming that inspire fist-pumping a la Jersey Shore and X-rolling--which Jay-Z references several times--a la French nightclubs. Hardcore hip-hop heads call it selling out, but who cares about the opinion of any group of traditionalists who call themselves "backpackers"? With Jay, it's always been about global success. Every record since RD has matched the chains he refuses to eschew--at least platinum. The classic hip-hop beats with cyclical samples are too plain for Jay-Z's implacably smooth and slackened raps. Now it's about showcasing the producers and showing that he's got futuristic taste. He ain't about that loud shit no more and he ain't got nothin' to prove.

People keep talkin' bout Hov take it back
I'm doin' better than before
Why would I do that?
Pop culture is known to deify music idols, then sacrifice them as false messiahs. Such is not the case for the star of the show. If The Black Album was the crucifixion, then The Blueprint 3 was the second coming. In the midst of heaps of shitty indie band EPs, overplayed club remixes of infectious electro-pop tunes, and randomly chosen hooks that Will.I.Am vomits all over the radio waves, Jay-Z remains relevant, whatever his anxieties about growing old. I don't think Jay's losing any sleep over his musical longevity. Just in case, he reassures us in "Forever Young."
Fear not die
I'll be alive for a million years
bye bye are not for legends
I'm forever young my name shall survive
Though his net worth is chump change to the Forbes 400, half a billion ain't too shabby. We haven't seen many rappers age successfully, but at 40, Jay-Z might be the first geezer gettin' paid to spit rhymes in a wheelchair. And if hip-hop dies before then, he'll just fall back on the careers of the artists he produces, the hotels he develops, the soon-to-be Brooklyn Nets, etc.

We've seen what happens to washed up MC's. They star on television shows and surround themselves with middle-aged prostitutes on VH1. The classier guys try their hand at Dancing with the Stars. Not Jay-Z. I bet he's chillin' right now in his Tribeca loft, deciding whether he and Beyonce will have a privately prepared meal at home or sneak out to get a private table at their favorite Upper East Side joint, Nello. Maybe later, he'll snag that Yoplait while Be' dozes off to an Ambien paradise. But that's only because he hasn't been able to fall asleep since his Blackberry went off. It's a call from Miami. Pharrell Williams says he's got some hot shit for the next record.


Special thanks to Robert Christgau. This essay was originally submitted as a paper for his NYU class.

Bookmark and Share


Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER

MAIN PAGE ARTICLES STAFF/FAVORITE MUSIC LINKS E-MAIL