[6 August 2012]
PopMatters Music Reviews Editor
” … 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.”—“What More Can I Say?”
What will happen when Jay-Z no longer exists? That’s been a question most people haven’t taken into consideration since the rapper reneged on his first try at retirement after his initial farewell record, 2003’s The Black Album. The above passage came from that particular album, of course, yet before anyone could even utter the phrase, “Show me what you got,” the hip-hop mogul was back at it, following his third classic album with the universally discounted Kingdom Come in 2006. American Gangster made up for that lackluster comeback in 2007, and then in September of 2009, the man born Shawn Carter officially wiped away all those retirement tears once and for all with his third Blueprint album.
To his credit, there hasn’t been a peep of retirement talk since he initially came back to the rap game in 2006, and considering how hungry he seemed on last year’s Watch The Throne collaboration with Kanye West, one can only assume that all those whispers about Jay-Z giving up music forever will now be laughed at from here on out. Sure, at some point, he might decide to scale back his artistic output in the future. But after watching him cry wolf with The Black Album—and subsequently seeing him come back to dominate the hip-hop world yet again with his last few records—any insinuation that says he may be thinking about stepping away from the mic for good would be nearly impossible to take seriously.
Still … what will happen when Jay-Z no longer exists? That’s a hard question to fathom at this point, isn’t it? He’ll turn 43 this year. He’s married now. He has 11 No. 1 solo records on the Billboard Top 200 (as he likes to remind listeners whenever the opportunity presents itself). That’s a record that at this point in music history is impossible to think will ever be broken, especially considering the notion that the man himself isn’t even done making music. His wife, the impossibly beautiful Beyonce Knowles, just gave birth to their first daughter. He was paid 693 gatrillion dollars to get in bed with Live Nation to begin his Roc Nation imprint in 2008 and word has it that the time is growing nearer for him to re-up with somebody, all but guaranteeing that whatever he lands next will probably bring him enough money to buy 11 countries—one for every one of those No. 1 albums he’s produced over the last two decades.
All told, it’s hard to believe that someone will be able to accomplish the same things Shawn Carter has accomplished for an entire genre of music after Carter, himself, succumbs to the notion—be it by death or tragedy—that he can’t do the rap thing anymore. No one else has ever been this good for this long when it comes to hip-hop. No one else has helped stretch the boundaries for what the rap culture was, is and will be. No one else got such an abnormally late start on the craft, only to help both mold and question it throughout all his career. No one else has been this massively successful outside the music world, what with Jay’s interest in moving an entire professional basketball team to his hometown and becoming an executive producer of one of the most popular basketball video game franchises ever, as he did last week. (“Jay-Z serves as exec producer for ‘NBA 2K13’ game”, by Associated Press, Wall Street Journal, 31 July 2012) And most importantly, no one else has consistently held this particular genre on his or her back for as long as Jigga has time and time again, whenever called upon to help save rap music from a slump.
Jay-Z doesn’t just embody hip-hop. Jay-Z is hip-hop.
There’s a reason why it’s not insane to view him as the Greatest Rapper Ever. Sure, his lines, flow and wordplay are all mostly unparalleled by anyone else who’s ever picked up a microphone or sat in a recording booth. And yeah, he has proven how he is the rare case of the hip-hop artist who can make songs that leave an impact both on one’s intellectual being and a fun night out in the club (“If skills sold / Truth be told / I’d probably be / Lyrically / Talib Kweli / Truthfully / I wanna rhyme like Common Sense / But I did five mil / I ain’t been rhyming like Common since / When your sense got that much in common / And you been hosteling since / Your inception / Fuck perception / Go with what makes sense,” he once rapped on “Moment of Clarity” thus forcing every single jaw that had ever been around hip-hop to shatter after it hit the floor so hard).
But what some hip-hop fans may fail to realize sometimes is the enormous hand print he has left on a type of music that has miraculously worked its way from nothing into something. Take Nas, for example. The MC who some consider the greatest lyricst to ever touch a microphone—and who, it’s also worth noting, went back and forth with Jay in one of the most historic battles ever put on wax—said something back in March that still rings as pointedly true nearly five months later. “Hip-hop has to thank God for Jay-Z,” he said in an interview with Peter Rosenberg. “The fact that he’s doing what he’s doing is an awakening call for all of the Gods and Earths to wake up and understand that this generation is bigger than what we can even fathom. He is one of the only ones out of the whole community that we grew up in, from the Run DMC days, who’s taken this shit seriously, taken this shit very seriously musically and businesses wise. That’s powerful. So you’ve gotta respect him.” (“Nas Says “Hip Hop Has To Thank God For Jay-Z”“, by Andres Vasquez, Hip Hop DX, 28 March 2012)
Herein lies the crux of why it’s so troubling to think about where the music may go once Jay-Z has to bow out for good. From 1996’s classic Reasonable Doubt, to 2001’s classic Blueprint, and all the way up to 2003’s aforementioned classic The Black Album, Jay-Z has made it a point to talk about evolution—not just the growth of him personally, but also the expansion of hip-hop as an art, and the types of other-worldly accomplishments one can achieve by thinking outside the traditional realm of rap music. “Look scrapper / I got nephews to look after / I’m not looking at you dudes / I’m looking past you / I thought I told you characters I’m not a rapper / Can I live? / I told you in ‘96 that I came to take this shit and I did,” he proclaimed on The Blueprint‘s “Heart Of The City (Ain’t No Love)”. Keep in mind, this was 2001 when he said that. We are now halfway through 2012, and he’s still the guy people go to in order to see what’s next. Who’s the hot producer the world has yet to hear? Who is that unknown vixen that can sing a type of sweet-sounding hook that has become synonymous with popular hip-hop? Which anonymous rapper does he allow a verse on one of his album tracks that can help expose an up-and-comer to people who may not have discovered him otherwise?
I mean, my God—the man took down an entire pop music fad when he released “DOA (Death Of Auto-Tune)” from The Blueprint 3. Who else has done that in recent memory? While the entire world of popular music was huddling around one cheap and simple vocal manipulation tool, Jay-Z came out and reminded hip-hop lovers why they loved hip-hop to begin with. Not only was it the fatal blow to an over-used Top 40 technique, but it also helped keep hip-hop on track to be the type of subversively brilliant medium it has grown into. It brought a sense of authenticity and realness back to the art, and it also established him as someone who will seemingly never allow thoughtless pop music flavors to creep into the world of hip-hop enough that its future would be in question.
Thus, it must be asked: Who in the history of the genre could one possibly claim is more important to the evolution of rap music than Jay-Z? The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac are constantly in the conversation as greatest-ever hip-hop artist, but they didn’t stick around long enough to have the ability to expand on how great they once were. Eminem blew up the rap world when he burst on the scene, but even the most passionate of Marshall Mathers fans have to admit that his bigger singles have become too silly to stomach at times. Common, Rakim, Mos Def, Talib Kweli and many others of their kind are all master wordsmiths, but when did any of them actually cross over into the mainstream with an inordinate amount of success?
The same could probably even be applied to Nas, though he has showcased an ability to sell large amounts of records from time to time, albeit not nearly as consistently as HOVA, himself. LL Cool J was a body more than a rapper, and now he just wants to be an actor. You always have to consider going back to the Ice-Ts and Chuck Ds and Big Daddy Kanes and KRS Ones and Easy-Es, but they essentially helped build the groundwork for what the genre has become today—they never really had the time to expand it and take it to places that people never thought it could go. Sure, there is always something to be said for the forefathers of an entire culture, but the reality is that the music wasn’t in a place that allowed the artist to dissect other aspects of what the culture could be. They just wanted to be noticed—they had no idea that someday one of their colleagues would be able to own basketball teams or be named on best-dressed lists from Vanity Fair.
But that’s precisely what has happened. Rap music has proven itself as a conduit for artists to not only get rich, but also to have a significant and lasting impact on popular culture as we know it today. No one has proven that more than Mr. Carter. Even more so, no one has taken that notion to the type of heights Jay-Z has, dining with the president of the United States of America and having said president brag that he knows of—and enjoys—some of his music. You can debate who is the best rapper ever if you want—it’s a barroom/barbershop conversation that will always be a lot of fun to explore. And hell, you can even debate who the greatest rapper alive is, which always seems to be an argument that changes with every passing season.
But the one thing you can’t argue at this point is the amount of impact Jay-Z has had on the hip-hop world as an artist, as an entrepreneur, as a hit-maker, as a cultural icon or as a trendsetter. What will happen to rap music when he is forced to hang up the gloves for good? It’s a pretty important question that should probably be tossed around more than it is. Here’s hoping Blue Ivy doesn’t want to become a NASCAR driver when she grows up. After all, she may very well be hip-hop’s last hope.