Rapper(s) of the Decade is a mixtape series curated by myself that will span 2010. In theory, each month I'll be dedicating a mixtape to the 12 Rappers and Groups I felt proved most instrumental in shaping the last decade in Hip Hop in no particular order. March's slightly delayed installment belongs to Jay-Z.
Download: Then We Came To The End
Like a President late in his second term, the coming of the 21st century led Shawn Carter to thoughts of legacy. His first release, The Dynasty: Roc La Familia is uneven by design. It’s sold as a compilation, but more so, from the title itself on down, an acknowledgment of the aspiration to become something more. He’s using his burgeoning fame to build up those around him, to strengthen the team in the interest of his own prominence. It's an album twining his destiny to that of Rocafella, everything considered in retrospect, setting his sites reasonably low. (Even Jay-Z didn't see this coming.) And it’s an album that lacks a real backbone or character. Like Volumes 3 and 2 before it in his In My Lifetime series it plays more as a collection of some good and some very good songs rather than a unified whole. It’s easy to imagine Jay-Z going forward from this moment, following a career arc of a rapper like, say, Nas. An established veteran with an entrenched fanbase spinning away his middle age making music for himself, staying in something akin to a comfort zone (even though in Nas’ particular case that comfort zone is a place of constant willful discomfort) and slowly fading into the irrelevance of being an old man in a young man’s game.
Of course something very different happened. Jay-Z, with the help of two young upstart producers with a taste for soul beats, made a pre meditated classic. The conclusion of a style, 90s East Coast crack rap, that was quickly turning anachronistic as a darker brand of Southern crime noir gained steam. The Blueprint is a compact, solid album with virtually no flaws that takes no chances and makes no mistakes, a master thesis of his tutelage in the game, starting with an apprenticeship under mentor Jaz-O and culminating with this album, its release date a seminal moment for rap music and America.
What changed is evident on The Blueprint’s most compelling song, “Renegade” his duet with then biggest rapper in the world Eminem, tellingly hand-plucked from the song’s original beneficiary, Royce Da 5’9. Jay’s work leading up to this moment existed in a cinematic, self contained universe. When he delved into personal issues, as he does on songs like “You Must Love Me” quite well, he’s fleshing out the character and mythology of Jay-Z, the hustler. The scope and ambition of this album, as well as this great, hand tipping song, fittingly alongside Eminem who himself had just released a masterpiece of self aware reactionary rap, The Marshall Mathers LP, is a response to critics who had always been somewhat let down by the single minded crack rap Jay excelled at. He's beginning to see his albums as statements, more than record sales and MTV Jams, he's playing chess. It’s the introduction of a broader context, a peek inside the persona and the true beginning of Jay-Z, the rapper.
The same career minded business savvy is present on his failed ambitious king maker, The Blueprint 2, and his successful one, The Black Album. Jay-Z’s faux retirement party is, from beginning to end, a tirade on the subject of expectations, restraints and frustrations working as a popular artist in a drug and money fueled medium, supported by the best writing of his and pretty much anyone else’s career. He pleads capitalism throughout, demanding there’s a soul down there somewhere. He just hasn’t had the opportunity to bare it, and doesn’t start to here.
That would come with his return following his short lived, miraculous, game changing stint as the CEO of Def Jam, rap’s biggest label. Kingdom Come is without a doubt, the worst album Jay ever put his name on. It was his conscious album, dealing with current issues in a ham fisted manner and his own success in an awkward, clumsy way that make his contemporary Kanye, and his fledgling Stan Drake look like fucking geniuses. However, it wasn’t all bad. With “Do U Wanna Ride” appropriately produced by Kanye, the listener is given a real sense of Jay’s genuine gratitude and what his success has meant to him. It’s the closest I’ve ever felt to the real Shawn Carter through a song.
American Gangster was a return to the street, but even in this case still conceptual and very much the work of a conscious artist. Jay paints the auto pilot tribute to Frank Lucas as a love letter to the hustle he grew up around, a hit or miss blaxploitation film. At the very least it was better than sitting through the film it was inspired by.
Finally, there’s The Blueprint 3, the logical conclusion of a decade spent discovering the artist within the hustler. BP3 is a weird, weird album. Its primary focus is fame and legacy in Jay’s same, cringy manner he seems unable to escape when discussing emotion. But it’s also incredibly ballsy, not without its successful moments to prop up the messy failures. He’s practicing experimental flow, rapping over off kilter production, teaming up with upstarts like Kid Cudi, Drake and J. Cole, and he still managed to go platinum. He claims his next effort will be even further out there.
The song I keep coming back to when I think about Jay-Z’s decade is his last, the cleverly titled “Young Forever”, a song I couldn’t bring myself to include on this tape because it’s been rightfully vilified as so fucking bad. From the very first time I listened to it, it struck me as an extremely sad song. At first I thought it was because it was so bad, because Jay sounds so lost and corny, but there’s something there, underneath it. Shawn Carter is now 40 plus. He’s had to endure aging in a very public spotlight, sitting on the throne in a kingdom that has historically had an expiration date around the age of 30. Perhaps Jay’s greatest contribution to Hip Hop over the last 10 years has been extending that date, showing that a rapper can be old and successful, and can even rap about that very taboo subject. Most of us will get old and fat and do stupid shit like get earrings and sports cars and only have our friends and family baring witness to our embarrassment. Jay has had the entire world watching and all he did was make an awkward song with Mr. Hudson. Not bad at all. Who knows, maybe in 15 years I won’t even hate it.
Jay-Z came into this century an, albeit eloquent, run of the mill crack rapper with a talent for churning out hits. Ten years later he’s a mogul, an aspiring billionaire, something no rapper has ever even attempted to be before. He battled and beefed, ended old friendships and started new ones. He’s matured and evolved and become one of the most interesting and important people in America, and did it all on record. He came to the end of one part of his career, his life, and began anew.
1. The Prelude Kingdom Come (2006)
2. Change The Game (ft. Beanie Sigel & Memphis Bleek)Roc La Familia (2000)
3. Venus Vs. Mars The Blueprint 3 (2009)
4. Renegade (ft. Eminem) The Blueprint (2001)
5. Nigga Please (ft. Young Chris) The Blueprint 2 (2002)
6. Public Service Announcement The Grey Album (2004)
7. Welcome To New York City (ft. Juelz Santana) Come Home With Me (2002)
8. Blue Magic (ft. Pharrell) American Gangster (2007)
9. 1-900-HUSTLER (ft. Freeway, Memphis Bleek & Beanie Sigel) Roc La Familia (2000)
10. Do U Wanna Ride (ft. John Legend) Kingdom Come (2006)
11. Flip Flop Rock (ft. Killer Mike) Speakerboxxx (2003)
12. It Ain't Personal The Best of Both Worlds (2002)
13. Back From France Hot 97 Freestyle DJ Clue- Show Me The Money 2002 (2002)
14. People Talking (Battle Results Mix) The Library of a Legend (2008)
15. Success (ft. Nas) American Gangster (2007)
16. Girls Girls Girls (ft. Q-Tip, Biz Markie & Slick Rick) The Blueprint (2001)
17. Encore The Black Album (2003)
18. Dear Summer 534 (2005)
19. Izzo (H.O.V.A.) Unplugged (2001)