Let me start by saying, Jay-Z is a legend and based on his discography as a whole, this is definitely deserved. So you won’t read any deep Jay-Z slander here. But here a few key facts on my opinion of him in modern hip hop. I was 2 and a half years old when Reasonable Doubt was released and only 7 when The Blueprint dropped. At that stage in my life, my favourite rapper was Ja Rule and I really wasn’t trying to hear songs about the struggle, I wanted songs with J-Lo and Ashanti that I could rap along to (Somewhere in my mum’s video collection, there is a clip of me in full Ja Rule attire doing this). So my first real experience of listening to a Jay-Z record was The Black Album. And that is where much of this theory is centred.
For me this is Jay-Z’s best for a few reasons. On this album, the balance between shows of lyrical brilliance, catchy hooks and melodies (Pharrell is a factor in this) and gritty tales was perfect. For every “99 Problems” there was a “Change Clothes”, for every “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” there was a “Encore”. And most importantly for a classic album, it has aged pretty well. The hook of “99 Problems” is fully embedded in pop culture even 13 years after its release. Also worth noting is at this point in his career, he had a few collaborations with his future wife, Beyoncé, namely “Bonnie and Clyde 03″and “Crazy in Love”. On both of these tracks, he’s in the zone. The zone here was akin to Biggie in the mid 90’s (prior to his death), Snoop in the late 90’s and most recently, Kendrick Lamar from 2013 (has anyone heard a trash Kendrick verse after his amazing one on “Control”) to now. Even though I personally feel Jay-Z lost the battle in his feud with Nas, as Ether is top 3 Diss tracks of all time, he unquestionably won the war. If we stop the tape on Hov here, he would be in my top 5 of a time. This is even despite the fact that the bulk of Reasonable Doubt has aged like N64 graphics.
But (unfortunately I believe) he kept rapping and it began to feel like he ran out of things to say. I was not feeling The Blueprint 3, American Gangster, Magna Carter Holy Grail, Best of Both Worlds (with R.Kelly) or Watch the Throne (with Kanye West). So, in my humble opinion, 5 trash albums, 4 forgettable albums, 2 debatables and a classic. That’s a one hot album every 5 years average.(If you don’t get the reference, stop reading this, you’re not real Hov fan). But in all seriousness, we bemoan Lil Wayne for being terrible after Tha Carter III but somehow Jay escapes this criticism. Albeit the quality of his work hasn’t slumped to the pits of rap hell that Wayne has, but even so the standard has dropped. Take his latest feature on DJ Khaled’s “I Got The Keys”. this demonstrated a rapper who. used to paint vivid pictures with clever bars, bless us with lines like “My wife Beyoncé. I brag different”. You wot m8? This is not the Jay we once knew. I listened to that track thinking “Damn, homie…In high school you was the man homie.” Many of Jay’s contemporaries are suffering from this, I’m looking at you E-40 and Snoop Dogg (I hasten to add that I still love Snoop and “Super Crip” off his latest album is amazing and you should listen to it). And others are really playing the OG role well, looking at Andre 3000’s verse on Frank Ocean’s latest album and Jadakiss’ verse on ScHoolboy Q’s. The real way to maintain this legendary status really is to stay the hell out the way. And when you do come in, you have to kill it. Dip in and then back out. It’s hard to stay out like this but when it’s done it’s so effective. Create the demand for a verse by being away, then come in with the dopeness to remind everyone why you’re a legend. Then back out again. Sounds simple enough but I’m fully aware that this is easier said than done. But the point remains, Jay-Z is defecating all over his own hard work and it pains me to see it. The longer this goes on the more I feel his legacy is damaged as a lyricist, and especially after Lemonade, he’s becoming Mr Beyonce Knowles.