Andrew Bailey and John Ulmer share a discussion about the career and legacy of Jay-Z.
JOHN ULMER: Discussing Jay-Z’s career is pretty daunting, because he’s at once a godfather of rap — one of the genre’s most successful, influential and popular figures — and a figure of so much derision. People have been hating on Jay for a while — even before his retirement — and after the failure of the much-hyped Kingdom Come it’s been nothing but cynicism and snark from many reviewers. Yet people continue to buy his albums; while his last solo record was met with disdain from journalists, it had a handful of huge hit singles, and his collaboration last year with Kanye West on Watch the Throne has gained much notoriety. It seems like a lot of people still love Jay even if his music has changed drastically from his early days.
Back when I reviewed Blueprint 3 for this site, I wrote: “[T]he best rap albums usually channel the hunger, strive and purpose of an underdog. Jay doesn’t have that drive anymore because he is on top — and it might take him hitting rock bottom again before we ever hear something as bold and beautiful as the first Blueprint.” I still think that’s true, and it’s why Watch the Throne had some of his best verses in years — Jay is only challenged these days when he’s trying to prove himself. He wouldn’t dare let Kanye upstage him, so he brought his A-game. But too often, simply because he is Jay-Z, he’s afforded the opportunity to coast by; I thought American Gangster was his best record since The Blueprint, and indeed one of the top three best records of his career, because he approached it as a concept album about a rise to power and was channeling that underdog’s strive to be on top again. I think I’m in a minority on that one, but I still rank it alongside Reasonable Doubt and The Blueprint.
I guess I’ve probably gotten ahead of myself and we should backtrack a little bit. Do you remember your first exposure to Jay’s music? Favourite album?
ANDREW BAILEY: Well right off the bat I have to say that I liked Blueprint 3. I liked it a lot. I can certainly see why other people might not have, but I just thought it was an extremely entertaining album. But I’d certainly agree that there was an aura of “coasting” about it. It was clearly geared towards creating singles, but I’m okay with that. Of course, I’m a huge Jay-Z fan — he’s easily among my three or four favorite rappers and he’s never put out an album that I actively disliked (Kingdom Come only inspired indifference). But yeah, we can get to how we rank his albums in a bit.
My first experience with Jay-Z was “Can I Get A…” and “Hard Knock Life,” when he first started gaining mainstream notoriety. I was too young to be into anything that wasn’t popular. I’m pretty sure Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life was the first rap album I ever purchased (it might have actually been All Eyez on Me). I was 13 when that album came out and it wasn’t wholly acceptable just yet for little white kids to listen to hardcore hip-hop, so I remember buying the clean version of the album and kind of hiding that I had it and loved it. A song like “Can I Get A…” is silly to a 13-year-old, so if any of my friends questioned it I’d just blame it on that song and chalk it up to a big joke. It’s kind of funny to see how far we’ve come so quickly. I mean, Puffy’s No Way Out and anything Mase did was enormous, but that seemed different. That was more pop-rap that you’d hear on the radio and could dance to. That was okay for 13-year-olds. Jay-Z was putting the phrase “fuck you” in his hooks. They were two different ballgames. But I think somewhere in Vol. 2‘s cycle it became okay — like, maybe it was taboo for my demographic on it’s release date, but before the last single off of it came out it was alright to embrace hip-hop. It moved quickly.
And I guess the other early memory I have would be listening to The Dynasty and The Blueprint damn near every day on the way to high school. I have an early birthday so I think I was driving by the end of my sophomore year. I don’t remember how the release of those two albums coordinated directly with when I was driving — I know The Blueprint dropped on 9/11, but I can’t recall if I was driving yet when The Dynasty first came out — but that’s what we listened to every day; those two albums and Stillmatic. We were really into the Jay-Z and Nas beef. But it was totally different by this point, socially. Hip-hop was hitting an apex and everyone loved it and accepted it.
JOHN: I enjoyed Blueprint 3, too, but it certainly had its share of misfires. I think the back end of the album is loaded with forgettable filler like “Hate,” but the first half or so is pretty solid. It was on heavy rotation on my car stereo for a while after it came out, because I have some old stereo that’s incapable of playing burned CDs, and it was one of the few in the last couple years that I actually purchased.
I would probably posit that Jay-Z is my favourite rapper and Nas is my favourite MC, which might sound strange but… Jay generally employs a better roster of producers and manages to get the beats. Nas is a better lyricist and his beats are usually less accessible. When he did try to go mainstream with his Untitled album, he seemed to get a lot of hate for it, but that track “Black Republicans” (featuring Jay-Z, incidentally) was great.
I don’t really recall my first exposure to Hova’s music. I generally wasn’t into rap until I reached my later teens, honestly (I only really even started getting into music in general during my mid-teens, and I remember dismissing rap because of how popular it was — I based this decision more on the image, which, at the time, was all about the controversy rap had inspired; I think my first rap album was Illmatic and then someone, probably online, recommended Reasonable Doubt and The Blueprint).
I love most of Jay’s work, particularly and obviously the older stuff, and I think Reasonable Doubt is brilliant. But I think on a personal level I kind of enjoy The Blueprint more. It’s his masterpiece. From the production (which at this point had yet to fully embrace the mainstream, in terms of seeking hits and guest appearances for hooks) to the lyrics (arguably his best/most consistent) to the guest spots that do happen (whether it’s Kanye or Eminem), it’s just a great fucking album; whenever I meet people who aren’t into rap, I usually tell them they should give that record a chance, because I think it has enough appeal to pull some converts. Of course now, in 2012, writing this is safe and acceptable: it’s kind of the standard go-to Jay-Z album — but I think it took a few years for everyone to come around to it, because by this point he was already huge and I think a lot of people didn’t want to admit he had accomplished anything substantial. Or something like that.
ANDREW: I think a lot of people credit The Blueprint as Jay’s classic album, but Reasonable Doubt has to be right alongside it. Depending how generous you felt like being, I could even see putting The Black Album up into that category (and his Unplugged, if that counts). But that’s the thing about Jay-Z that seems really different when looking back on his career arc: he’s never really had a run of classic albums, yet he’s a safe fit in any conversation about the best of all-time.
If you look back through the solo careers of some of the best rappers, they’ve all either had massive runs of success — Eminem’s first three are classics and the run Kanye is on jumps to mind — or sample sizes cut short, like Tupac and Biggie, where all they’ve got is classics because that’s all they had time for (I’m not taking Tupac’s posthumous stuff into account here, though most of it is solid at worst). Nas had that kind of run in the 90s too. Jay-Z, meanwhile, sort of just churned stuff out constantly and sprinkled in his classics. His arc just feels unique.
Ultimately though, that’s the thing that draws me to Jay-Z as a whole: he’s never lost relevance and he’s evolved extremely well. He’s in his mid-40s and still seems like a rapper. Meanwhile, there are guys around the same age who just don’t fit at all anymore. Maybe they can still rhyme or still get the best producers, but they just don’t have the aura. Eminem is one of those guys. His shtick just doesn’t make sense anymore. His whole career was built around this angry lyricism and now it just seems like, “dude, what are you angry about?” He’s filthy rich and he’s got the drug problems and all that, but it just seems tired. It seems like he’s grown out of his frame, so to speak. Jay-Z isn’t like that at all to me. His shoes still fit.
JOHN: When discussing Jay’s output with friends, I often hear Black Album mentioned. I think that record had a lot of his bigger hits – “99 Problems” being the biggest I suppose (I wonder how many times it’s been used in movie trailers?) – and it’s definitely good, but for whatever reason, I never quite thought it was as good as The Blueprint or Reasonable Doubt. It felt a bit more indebted to its time — which is to say, it fit in nicely with the sound prevalent in mainstream hip-hop in the early ’00s, but has shown its age over the past few years. Seemed like a more conscious effort on Jay’s part to deliver mainstream hits, and it’s not as ambitious or sprawling as The Blueprint, which embraced a pop aesthetic while still kinda giving a middle-finger to samples of its time (and it owes much of that to Kanye). Black Album is still a solid record; just not a personal favourite, nor something I’d rank as one of his masterpieces.
Reasonable Doubt is definitely one of his classics. You could tell that was a debut album — given that he hadn’t risen to the top yet, it was a bit more of what you might refer to as a gangsta rap album, versus something like Blueprint that sampled soul and r&b. The guest spots by titans like Biggie probably helped it gain even more immediate recognition, but the hunger and strive in Jay’s verses ensure that he dominates his own record.
I agree when you say that Jay has had a unique career, too. I think you have icons of the genre like Snoop, Dre, Ice Cube, et al — they all fell off pretty hard. They either lost relevance, or misplaced their talent and found it to be detrimental to their music. (Ice Cube can try to come out with a gangsta rap album every few years, but after those Are We There Yet misadventures, it’s hard to take him seriously when he’s talking about pulling a shotgun on you. Meanwhile, Snoop is relegated to lame quips about will.i.am, and reality TV shows about his family.)
Jay never lost focus, even when he made missteps. Announcing his retirement around the release of the Black Album was, in retrospect, pretty dumb — I think he was earnest about it back then, but he came back faster in a faster amount of time than a lot of working artists take to even put out new music anyway. But I think the rap world moves faster than a genre like rock — which is why it’s all the more impressive that he’s still hanging in there. He took Kingdom Come in stride, and frankly, it wasn’t as bad as people made it out to be — just kinda underwhelming after a fairly strong run of albums. And he more than made up for it on American Gangster the following year.
He’ll do a shitty, obligatory guest verse on some albums (like the last Rihanna record) but he’s still, well, Jay-Z. He’s manged to solidify himself as the king of the genre in a way that pretty much no other rapper has managed to do, and held his place there even over long gaps of inactivity. And while his personal life has certainly helped booster his popularity to non-rap-fans, he’s never embraced the paparazzi or sought attention as so many comparable celebrites. This has, ironically, only generated more interest for the tabloids — when there were rumours circulating that Beyonce was pregnant, pretty much every gossip rag out there was reporting on it. But there was nothing but silence on his end, and you have to respect that in an age where fame seems to fuck with so many people’s mindsets and personal values.
You’re right about Eminem, too. I wouldn’t say his lyrics were always angry, but there was a lot of shock-value there. It was horrorcore rap with the occasional serious track like “Lose Yourself.” And back then I would have encouraged him to follow that direction, transitioning from reckless youth to a more mature standpoint — 8 Mile was good and the soundtrack was too, and that provided him a nice opportunity for growth as an artist — but he kinda degressed into lame jokes on Encore, and then… disappeared. His comeback was transparent and his second comeback was commercially successful but didn’t really feel like Eminem. Jay never really had to face any of that — he transitioned from gangsta rap to mainstream hip-hop and was consistent enough in his activity that even when he had a few bad tracks, there were usually a few good ones, too. He probably had some personal demons of his own, but never let that become the main theme of his early work — and as much as that may have helped Eminem become famous in the first place, it’s also sorta what made it hard for him to move on.
ANDREW: I don’t think his retirement was dumb or even abrupt or earnest, really. I think it was a calculated move. Or at least semi-calculated. Maybe that’s why I have such a great appreciation for Jay-Z: even when he does something that I can’t get behind artistically, I can appreciate the reason he’s doing it. If you ask me, that retirement was a business decision. I suspect on some level he actually believed he was hanging it up, but ultimately I think he realized there’s money to be made in a comeback. And he was “leaving” while he was still making hits, so it had that much more of an impact when he “came back.” I mean, Kingdom Come wasn’t good, but I don’t know that it was meant to be a classic. I’m not discounting his efforts, but I think it was a part of his plan to make money. And I’m mostly cool with that. Companies put superfluous products on the shelves all the time because they know they’ll sell. It can be frustrating when that same tactic is applied to music, but hey, it works.
Along those same lines, what do you make of some of his more well-known collaborations? He’s got the two with R. Kelly, Collision Course with Linkin Park, and Watch the Throne, obviously. Teaming up with R. Kelly and Kanye West hardly seems like a stretch, but Linkin Park? That’s a savvy business move and a really interesting artistic choice. I know they’re a popular band, but how many rappers could you imagine releasing an album with them and living to tell the story?
JOHN: I suppose you’re right about his “retirement” being more of a conscious business decision, but I’m not sure I can get behind that as willingly as you do. At the same time, Jay-Z is kind of the epitome of a business man (or a business, man!) so the fact that he approaches his music career with the same mindset doesn’t seem quite as cynical as if, say, an older rock star did the same thing.
But there’s a dissonance there, too. Rap as a genre is very much focused on power and wealth, name brands and designer clothes. So for the biggest rapper in the world to announce his retirement and then have it revealed as a business model… well, it’s not exactly a big surprise, or something you could consider hugely detrimental to his career. Can’t be too mad at it.
As far as his collaborative albums go, I was never hugely into Linkin Park, but that album came out when I was a teenager and I remember hearing tracks in movie trailers, commercials, etc. Still not exactly a fan of the band (couldn’t tell you the name of a single track they’ve done in the past half-decade), but it’s a clever crossover attempt and clearly one that worked, as I think it did manage to get fans on each side listening. That was yet another piece of the puzzle in establishing Jay’s longevity and multi-genre appeal.
The Danger Mouse Grey Album wasn’t expressly endorsed by Jay-Z (I think he approved of it after its release, but was never really that vocal about it), but that was another interesting blurring of genres. To marry music from what many consider to be the greatest musical act of all time with a rap star could have been disastrous, but for the most part, it works pretty well.
Watch the Throne had some cool tracks, but overall I found it to be disappointing. At the same time, I think Jay sounded stronger there than he has in years. I think knowing he’d be directly opposite Kanye for the whole record really made him step his game up. There was a hunger there that I haven’t heard in a while. He’s the kind of rapper who will coast on the fact that, well, he’s Jay-Z — why not get paid to spit some lazy verses and get paid regardless? Nice work if you can get it — but I think he and Kanye, despite their friendship, are very insecure around each other. The rap game is inherently competitive, and there were those reports of tension behind-the-scenes of their tour. I don’t doubt it. Kanye had just come off the best-reviewed album of his career so he didn’t really have much to prove — he sounds comfortable on Throne — but Jay dominates a lot of those tracks. Even the mediocre ones.
Since we touched on Jay’s business savvy, what do you make of all the Illuminati nonsense that has surfaced within the past few years? I think it started out innocently, but once the rumours started I think he, and some of his frequent collaborators, decided to take full advantage of it. All this “symbolism” in recent videos seems overt — controversy sells, and I think he’s capitalizing on it. I don’t follow it too closely but I do think it’s amusing how many people take it seriously.
ANDREW: I’m so unfamiliar with the Illuminati stuff that I actually had to Google it. I’m glad I did though, because some of it is really entertaining. The accusations that he’s put all this symbolism in his lyrics and music videos (complete with screenshots!) remind me of the hours and hours I killed in high school researching Tupac conspiracies. Except, you know, the Tupac theories actually seem way more credible than this crap. Basically, it just reads like a bunch of jealous people gathered together to start a rumor to make themselves feel better about not having the same success as someone else. It’s silly.
So I guess my next thought is: is there an album that you think gets overlooked? I mentioned before how it seems like he has this pattern of dropping a classic amid a hand full of other releases, but that doesn’t mean those other releases are afterthoughts. For me, I always liked The Dynasty (another one of his collaborative records). That’s one of those albums where subjectivity and objectivity clash. Objectively, I realize it’s a flawed album in a lot of ways. But there are some standout songs and verses on there (“This Can’t Be Life” is incredible). I don’t really even get into Beanie Sigel or Memphis Bleek, who are basically the album’s co-stars, but I still think it’s a solid, enjoyable disk.
JOHN: Yeah, the Illuminati stuff is silly, but amusing. Just the other day a girl in one of my telecom classes brought it up during a discussion of hidden messages in media, and she genuinely seemed to believe there was some sort of evil brainwashing going on (she also was of the opinion that the name of Jay and Beyonce’s daughter is some kind of occult reference). Ultimately it’s no different from when rock bands like Judas Priest courted satanic symbolism to help shift records. It’s another business move and it seems to be working because I feel like half the comments on Jay-and-co.’s music videos on YouTube are related to that stuff and deconstructing it.
Anyway… back to the music itself. Yeah, Dynasty is flawed, but enjoyable. “This Can’t Be Life” is indeed a solid track, though I wouldn’t rank it as one of his best. “Change the Game” has a great beat. Personally, I’d say In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 tends to get overlooked a bit. I mean, it’s probably considered the best of that trilogy of records, which I’d also agree with, but it came right after Reasonable Doubt and just didn’t live up to it. But at that point, what could have? “Imaginary Player” is still awesome years later. And those other two volumes aren’t as bad as some fans make them out to be, either. There are great tracks on those albums; they’re just scattered. I still think even though his records have been wildly inconsistent, Jay has yet to release a truly awful, let alone bad, album. Yes, Kingdom Come is his worst, but is it nearly as bad as some other rap records from comparable artists? I’d take some of those tracks over stuff from the latest Carter or what-have-you.
Any particular guest-spots from Jay’s career that you find memorable or noteworthy? One of my favourites is on that old Freeway track “What We Do.” I think pretty much everyone has written off Freeway since that Cassidy battle, but that was a solid track, and Jay delivered some of his best verses. And of course I love some of Hov’s stuff with Kanye from back in the day, like “Never Let Me Down,” but I feel that almost goes without saying. He recently showed up on a remix of Raphael Saadiq’s “Oh Girl,” and I really enjoyed that, too — it’s a retro r&b/soul beat and he tackles it gracefully.
ANDREW: This is probably cherry picking a little, but his cameo on “Crazy in Love” is great. It’s just a cheesy pop song and his verse isn’t spectacular or anything, but I always thought that song was produced really well and hit the marks it was setting out to hit. He just comes in so strong on that track.
“Never Let Me Down” is another good one. I’ve recently been listening to The College Dropout again — that album is pure genius, by the way — and really had my appreciation for that song revitalized. His cameo on “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” is another personal favorite, though again that’s probably just picking low hanging fruit. I also really liked his spots on Memphis Bleek’s “Is That Your Chick” and Cam’ron’s “Welcome to New York City.” I’m probably missing some too. I think, generally speaking, Jay-Z makes for a great feature because he rarely comes on someone else’s track and outshines them, but still manages to contribute something. I guess that could be taken equally as an insult or a compliment.
JOHN: I would consider it a compliment in most cases. Jay-Z has gotten to the point where he just is who he is, and thus has the level of confidence to come in on any track and do his thing and not necessarily have to outshine anyone else, as you said, but simply deliver what you would expect. Apart from my comments about his verses on Throne, the majority of the time he doesn’t seem to be trying to stand out too much or trying to prove himself, and I think in an odd way that’s made a lot of his guest spots sound better in retrospect. When “Monster” came out, everyone was raving about Nicki Minaj. She has pretty much failed, since then, to live up to that initial hype — her album was kinda meh and none of her guest features since then have been half as good. It’s still early in her career, but it’s just an example of a rapper trying their hardest to outdo the titans and then they’re perpetually struggling to live up to that one spot. Now when I listen to her verses on “Monster” I pretty much just think about how disappointing everything she’s done since then has been, whereas Jay is just sorta doing his thing on that track and isn’t as distracting. I’m sure a lot of people will disagree, but that’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.
I do have a confession, though. I love Blueprint, I love Jay, and I like a lot of Eminem’s older work (more-so than his recent material, as we’ve touched upon earlier in this discussion). But something about “Renegade” always rubbed me the wrong way. Never really warmed up to it. Nas has that famous diss in “Ether” about how Jay got murdered on his own track, but I don’t think Jay and Eminem play very well off of each other for some reason — it just never quite clicked for me. I didn’t see them when they did those shows a couple years back but I saw a performance of “Renegade” on Letterman and thought it was pretty underwhelming.
Are there any particularly popular tracks of his that you’ve never quite warmed up to?
ANDREW: I actually do agree with that theory, at least framed that way. The main reason I didn’t like Nicki Minaj’s solo album — like, at all — is because it wasn’t “Monster.” It’s just another half hip-hop, half pop album with no personality.
I do think you’re all wrong about “Renegade” though. That’s easily one of the best rap tracks ever recorded, though I think what happened there was that Eminem laid his verse down so well that no one could have stood next to him and measured up. That’s why I thought that particular Nas diss was so weak. It’s not like Nas or anybody else could have dropped a verse better than Em’s. So in my mind at least, that just showed that Jay-Z was secure in his spot. Yeah, he got “murdered” on his own track. But it didn’t hurt him. What was he supposed to do, scrap the whole song because someone out-rapped him? Nicki Minaj murdered everybody on “Monster” and it hasn’t really done anything to anyone’s reputation (beside maybe Nicki’s herself), right?
I’ve never liked “Big Pimpin'” or “Girls, Girls, Girls.” In fact, other than live, I haven’t heard either of those songs in years because I gloss right over them. And “Change Clothes” is pretty bad too. I’d take pretty much any song off The Blueprint 3 over any one of those. In fact, have you heard the BP3 bonus tracks? Because there’s a few of those I’d prefer too (“Ain’t I,” “Jockin’ Jay-Z,” “Brooklyn (Go Hard),” and “Blow the Whistle”).
JOHN: “Big Pimpin'” is a bit overplayed, but I do still love “Girls Girls Girls.” I love how laidback it is. There’s something almost sort of melancholy about it; at face value it’s a guy bragging about how easily he can get hot bitches, but the detached manner in which he recalls his experiences with them is sort of sad. Perhaps I’m reading into it too much, but it’s almost like he’s lamenting the endless line of vacuous girls he’s hooked up with.
I agree about the BP3 bonus tracks. I think “Brooklyn (Go Hard)” was originally slated for the record — and so was “Swagga Like Us” at one point — but the former of those ended up on the Notorious soundtrack instead. When Barack Obama won the election, Jay put out a pretty awesome track called “History” that I still play from time to time. The sample he used, in retrospect, ended up fitting in nicely with the production of the album itself — and I still think it’s better than a lot of material that did end up on there. I think he works well with relatively downbeat samples, especially as he get older.
ANDREW: Well, if he wasn’t lamenting the girls before (and I feel like he probably wasn’t), he might be now. I know he’s recently stricken the word “bitch” from his songs — or maybe just future songs — and seems intent on taking some new directions artistically now that he has a daughter. I thought “New Day” was the most well-rounded track off Watch the Throne and the sentiment he expressed in that song was a really fantastic new avenue for him. He’s rhymed about parenthood and his own home life plenty of times before, but only now does it feel as powerful. He’s almost certainly going to continue making fun, easily digestible pop rap songs, but he has the material now for a fantastic late career revival of sorts. I’m really looking forward to the next step in his evolution.