It is not a secret that I am obsessed with Jay-Z’s music. I have spent many years listening to his albums and analyzing his lyrics. Without a doubt, Jay has proven to be one of the greatest rappers alive. He has the flow; he has the cadence; he has the delivery; but what made him a lyrical genius is his words. He holds the power of words, in which he has been crafting and developing before he even picked up the mic.
I always loved the story of his writing process. Jay started writing in his notebooks at an early age. When he was out hustling and an idea came to him, he could reach for his notebooks at home; therefore, he started writing on brown paper bags or whatever piece of scrap paper he could find at the moment. Then he would lose those papers. As a result, he wrote them in his head instead. He built longer and more complex verses inside his head. Jay was known for his paperless recording process. He went into the studio, listened to the beats, and just spat his verses without a word written down.
I have been adapting his process into my own writing as well for this blog. I can sit in front of my computer and let the words flow off my head. In twenty years of blogging, I never had an issue where I stared at the blank screen and didn’t know what to write. Something always came up. Whenever I was on the road and an idea started to form, I just started writing in my head until I had access to my computer to type up my words. This piece is a perfect example. While driving to Lancaster, Pennsylvania and listening to Jay, the concept for this piece came to mind and I knew exactly what I wanted to write.
Over his long career as a rap artist, Jay had released 13 studio albums for himself and a handful of collaborative projects. I don’t listen to all of them, but the albums I listened to I often revisited them over the years. In my own perspective, these are the albums that defined Jay as a powerhouse lyricist. Although the albums I am about to mention can be listened to from the beginning to end and I highly recommend them, I won’t delve into each individual track.
Right off his 1996’s debut release, Reasonable Doubt, Jay wasted no time declaring, “Can’t Knock a Hustler,” in which he rapped, “We do dirt like worms, produce G’s like sperm / ’Til legs spread like germs.” In “Dead Presidents 2,” Jay sampled a hot line from Nas (“I’m out for presidents to represent me”) and made it a hot song. Later on, he dissed Nas about it too.
In 1998, Jay released his wildly commercial success Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life with hits like “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem),” “Money, Cash, Hoes” (with DMX), and “Can I Get a Fuck You?” (with Ja Rule and Amil). This is not one of my favorite albums, but it put Jay-Z on the mainstream map.
A year later, 1999, Jay followed up with Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter, in which he walked the line between a hard hustler and chart chaser. As I re-listened to “Big Pimpin’,” I couldn’t help, but wonder if Jay ever regretted making one of the most misogynist rap verses ever. Although it is so gross, the entire verse is worth quoting in full:
You know I thug ’em, fuck ’em, love ’em, leave ’em
‘Cause I don’t fuckin’ need ’em
Take ’em out the hood, keep ’em lookin’ good
But I don’t fuckin’ feed ’em
First time they fuss I’m breezin’
Talkin’ about, “What’s the reasons?”
I’m a pimp in every sense of the word
Bitch, better trust and believe ’em
In the cut where I keep ’em
’Til I need a nut, ’til I need to beat the guts
Then it’s “beep beep” and I’m pickin’ ‘em up
Let ’em play with the dick in the truck
Many chicks wanna put Jigga’s fists in cuffs
Divorce him and split his bucks
Just because you got good head
I’ma break bread, so you can be livin’ it up?
Shit, I part with nothin’, y’all be frontin’
Me give my heart to a woman?
Not for nothin’, never happen; I’ll be forever mackin’
Heart cold as assassins, I got no passion
I got no patience and I hate waitin’
Ho, get your ass in and let’s ride!
How do you defend the undefendable? I am sure Jay doesn’t need anyone to defend his work, but it took me years to realize that he had thrown a line in there to defend himself: “I’m a pimp in every sense of the word.” This is Big Pimpin’ talking, not Big Jay. Jay just retold the story of a pimp.
On September 11, 2001, the same day American was under attack, Jay released “The Blueprint,” which was filled with lyrical prowess. Right off “The Takeover,” Jay belittled Nas:
You’ve been in this 10, I’ve been in it five; smarten up, Nas!
Four albums in 10 years, nigga? I could divide
That’s one every… let’s say two, two of them shits was due
One was “nah…,” the other was Illmatic
That’s a one-hot-album-every-10-year average
And that’s so (Lame)
Speaking of counting, Jay enjoyed counting his money on “U Don’t Know”:
I smartened up, opened the market up
One million, two million, three million, four
In eighteen months, eighty million more
Now add that number up with the one I said before
You are now lookin’ at one smart black boy
Mama ain’t raised no fool
Put me anywhere on God’s green earth, I’ll triple my worth, motherfucker
On the same track, Jay boasted about his hustle:
I sell ice in the winter, I sell fire in Hell
I am a hustler, baby, I’ll sell water to a well
I was born to get cake, move on and switch states
Cop the coupe with the roof gone and switch plates
Was born to dictate, never follow orders, dick face
Get your shit straight, fucker, this is Big Jay
On November 12, 2002, Jay released his lyrical pinnacle, The Black Album. On “What More Can I Say,” Jay announced his retirement:
Pound for pound, I’m the best to ever come around here
Excludin’ nobody, look what I embody:
The soul of a hustler, I really ran the street
A CEO’s mind, that marketin’ plan was me
And no I ain’t get shot up a whole bunch of times
Or make up shit in a whole bunch of lines
And I ain’t animated like, say, a Busta Rhymes
But the real shit you get when you bust down my lines
Add that to the fact I went plat’ a bunch of times
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
Fuck this man!
From “December 4th” to “Encore” and “Moment of Clarity” to “99 Problems,” if Jay were to bow out, he would always be remembered as one of rap’s greatest lyricists. Fortunately, Jay couldn’t leave rap alone because the game needed him. His next four studio releases didn’t do much until he collaborated with Kanye West.
Watch the Throne released in 2011. What a pair they made. As “H.A.M” suggested, Jay and Ye went as hard as motherfuckers on every track. “Who Gon Stop Me,” in particular, sums up Jay’s success story:
When you’re growing up worthless
Middle finger to my old life
Special shoutout to my old head
If it wasn’t for your advice
A nigga would have been so dead
I’m living life til these niggas kill me
Turn this up if you niggas feel me
I’m riding dirty, tryna get filthy
Pablo Picasso, Rothkos, Rilkes
Graduated to the MoMA
And I did all of this without a diploma
Graduated from the corner
Y’all can play me for a muthafuckin’ fool if you wanna
Street-smart and I’m book-smart
Coulda been a chemist ’cause I cook smart
Only thing that can stop me is me, hey
And I’ma stop when the hook start, hol’ up
Jay indeed did it without a diploma. He didn’t need the official education to prove that he had what it took to be extremely successful. He did it with literate and literary. He got wealthy through his execute mind, but his words got him there.
In 2017, Jay released 4:44, his most emotionally naked album yet. On the title track he apologized to his wife:
I seen the innocence leave your eyes
I still mourn its death and
I apologize for all the stillborns
’Cause I wasn’t present, your body wouldn’t accept it
I apologize to all the women whom I toyed with your emotions
’Cause I was emotionless
And I apologize ’cause at your best, you are love
And because I fall short of what I say I’m all about
Your eyes leave with the soul that your body once housed
And you stare blankly into space
Thinkin’ of all the time, you wasted it on all this basic shit
So I apologize
I am just scratching the surface here. Jay has more lyrical depth than I can offer in this piece. If you are interested in his work, listen to the albums I have highlighted above. You can also pick up a copy of Michael Eric Dyson’s Jay-Z: Made in America, in which the author examines Jay’s role as a gifted lyricist.
I am not sure when Jay will release his next album, but I am definitely looking forward to listening to it. Until then, I will continue to enjoy his past works.