Throughout our week-long celebration of Jay-Z’s legacy, most often praised has been his ascent to becoming a Black billionaire and hip-hop’s most successful capitalist. As Roc Nation-managed artist Wale noted: “Because of Jay-Z… A lot of young Black men are inspired to be entrepreneurs beyond just music.”
Beyond the money he’s made, Jay-Z’s affect on culture has also been a frequent topic of conversation, with journalist Jamilah Lemieux joking, “Because of Jay-Z… I’ll never know what Cristal tastes like.”
Today, though, we close our five-part, 50-tribute series recentering Jay-Z’s music within the canon of his mythology. Featuring words from ten music writers and editors throughout the industry, read on as we distill over 20 years of impeccable artistry.
Because of Jay-Z… I learned the power of controlling your own narrative. There are many hip-hop artists who have mastered the art of storytelling—every phase of Shawn Carter’s burgeoning career had him paired with a contemporary of arguably equal or greater technical skill, whether it be Jaz-O, Big L, Biggie, or Nas. But few were able to blur the lines between the man, the myth and the legend as effortlessly and as masterfully as he was, maintaining not just relevance, but resonance throughout different eras of rap.
As a writer, being the interlocutor of a universe that exists so richly in your mind is a delicate practice. Whether the genre is fact, fiction or somewhere in between, excavating your brain to lay a canvass that will engage an audience has always proven laborious for me, despite my love for the medium. I have always found it all the more impressive, as a result, to see rappers of Jay's caliber not only create worlds that are so personal to us, but live in them for extended periods of time while in the studio—whipping up dialogue and verses with ease (and in Jay's case, not even with a pad and paper).
Depending on who you ask, Jay speaks to their inner aspirational hustler, fantasizer, street prophet, or a combination of all three, phasing in and out between modalities as easily as he switches rhyme schemes. It is that same chameleonic nature that has allowed Jay to not just modify his sound from album to album, depending on the producer pairing, but also transform his standing in hip-hop from young upstart to elder statesman—as he rapped on the opening track of The Blueprint 2, “Nobody built like you, you design yourself.”
Because of Jay-Z… I've learned to appreciate perfection. Though I've often said perfection is a bore, there's something enchanting about the way Hov manages to maneuver a beat without any missteps. The way he plays with spaces and lands in pockets is pure magic. No matter the production choice, Hov doesn’t simply float, he plods, making the beat his own. Just think about the way Jay pronounces the word "sincere" on the third verse of "Threat" on The Black Album. The way he muscles the vowels like they're putty in his mouth. All Jay-Z bars are precise, even when they’re bent out of shape.
When you press play on Hov's work, you know what you're going to get: airtight raps. But they're never tiring. Thankfully, Jay-Z is always looking for that next level of perfection. Despite his pristine skill, he does not stay complacent. Take the concept of 4:44, for example, and what Shawn Carter’s 13th album did for the perception of grown man rap. Hov makes growth feel fresh and exciting, as opposed to a requirement for survival. With each release, you're left wondering: How will the man outdo himself this time? While perfect rappers are often the most forgettable, as the most interesting artists usually have some sort of idiosyncratic irregularity to their work, Jay-Z has managed to abscond the damnation of technical flawlessness. He's made me realize perfection can be thrilling, when executed in the right way—Hov's way.
Because of Jay-Z… I witnessed the kind of consistency a writer should strive for. Growing up in the South, Lil Wayne, not Jay-Z, was the Carter for me. That changed early in my 20s when I went back through his discography and discovered a man who vocalized adulthood with words that resonated like Bible scriptures. I went back to his albums—The Blueprint, Reasonable Doubt, The Black Album, and American Gangster being some of my favorites—and I studied the way he delivers timeless hustler parables from behind Cartier frames. The lyricism, precise and piercing, allows his words to act as the arrows of a master marksman. Every bullseye verse was a reminder that his ammo felt unlimited. Even when he missed the mark, it's his ability to keep shooting after all these years that's inspiring.
I’ll never forget the first time I heard him rap, “Since diapers, had nothing to live for like them lifers / but making sure every nigga stay rich within my cipher,” on the first verse of “Feelin’ It.” It’s not a witty punchline or a clever metaphor, and the lines aren’t his best, but I love how they explain who he is and what he strives for with eloquence and charisma.
Jay is a writer who knows what to say and how to say it so you won't forget the image. I’ve always wondered how a man without a pen could consistently paint so vividly. How did he carry all these images in his head, find the perfect sequence of words, and deliver them in schemes that move rhymes as if they were chess pieces? Thirteen studio albums, a multitude of singles, songs, and features, yet, not a single piece of paper wasted. Without question, he will go down in history as a rapper’s rapper and a writer’s writer, but what I’ll remember most about Jay-Z is how purposeful he was in the deployment of his words. He would’ve made one hell of a journalist.