It’s not easy being a hip-hop fan.
Anyone who is a supporter of the genre will be familiar with the criticisms re: the “money, cash, hoes” content that pervades many of the songs. One rapper who is noted for his trend-setting, luxury-laden lyrics also happens to be one of my all-time favourite artists in any genre - Jay-Z. His bio has been very well covered elsewhere, and I don’t intend to repeat it here – but let’s just say that acquiring currency and possessions have always been a prominent part of his music since…forever. He even responded to such criticism on his song “99 Problems”, which recently celebrated a 10-year anniversary:
“Rap critics who say I’m money, cash, hoes, I’m from the hood stupid what type of facts are those?”
However, increasingly over the past 2 – 3 years, I’ve found myself being less and less able to connect with his lyrics. Jay has a special place in my musical upbringing; he was the first rap artist that I ever really listened to, and I still maintain that The Blueprint and The Black Album are his two finest pieces of work. The real highlight for me of Blueprint / Black Album era Jay wasn’t the stuff about cars or cash, but the witty and inspirational lines about general self-confidence, and the creative way in which he delivered them, see below:
“So next time you see the homie and his rims spinnin’, just know my mind is working just ‘em – the rims that is…” (Moment of Clarity, The Black Album)
“Bird ass n*ggas I don’t mean to ruffle y’all I know you waiting in the wings but I’m doing my thing” (Heart of the City, The Blueprint)
“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 supposed to be number one on everybody’s list, we’ll see what happens when I no longer exist” (What More Can I Say? The Black Album)
Or any line from his satirical take on American law enforcement from the aforementioned “99 Problems”. Or the whole of “Girls, Girls, Girls”. Or the brilliant Biggie tribute “A Dream”. He wouldn’t just rap for the sake of it – he would have a certain concept in mind and perfectly work his lines around that concept.
Fast-forward to my current take on things. As we get older, all of us inevitably start narrowing our focus in life and making decisions that set us on particular career paths, or push us towards certain lifestyles. For me, this meant pursuing an academic career, which is very meaningful in terms of my personal values, but one that doesn’t really give you the means for buying twin Bugattis and parking them outside the Art Basel, if you know what I mean. Over the years, I think I’ve come to place less importance on having ‘stuff’ – my new outlook of sorts has been that ‘no one talks about your bank balance at your funeral’, which I think sums it all up pretty nicely.
Jay on the other hand seems to have gone to the other extreme, with flashy content taking a more prominent place in his music. The difference is that now when I listen to his latest material, he kinda just comes off as a rich, middle-aged guy who defines himself by his possessions rather than his character or ability, which was never the vibe I got before. As evidence, I direct you to any track off his latest album, which had some amazing instrumentals (“Picasso Baby”, that one with Rick Ross), but which was way too overloaded with luxury references for my taste, and lacked any content that I found remotely engaging or meaningful. I don’t know if he really has amped up the wealth angle, or if it’s that my own position on these things has changed, but I simply had no real idea about the stuff he was talking about.
You’d think that there would be some kind of development given he’s now a family man and a husband. Maybe he would rap about getting into arguments with the Mrs, or getting up at 3am to change his child’s nappies like the rest of the parenting world? Of course, it should be evident by his releases of the last 5 years that he has no intention or showing vulnerabilities in the seemingly unfallible, hyperheroic entrepreneur rap persona he’s decided to pursue. Aside from “Jay-Z Blue” off his latest album, a definite exception content-wise (but a let down production-wise), there’s been no noticeable change in focus or priorities in his lyrical content since “Beach Chair" and "Lost One" on Kingdom Come (I love both of those songs, by the way).
It’s sad, because seeing a new Jay song being released, or one that featured his name used to get me super excited back around the mid 00s. That’s pretty much gone now – I’ve hit “play” too many times to know that I’m just in for another complimentary audio tour of a luxury department store. There have been exceptions over the last few years, “So Ambitious” and “Murder to Excellence” are great songs that have that vintage Jay spirit, but overall – I’m always left wanting.
It’s fitting that the artist who, a couple years back, knocked Jay off my number one rapper (and overall artist) spot, Drake, recently had this to say about Mr Carter’s extravagant lyrics:
“It’s like Hov can’t drop bars these days without at least four art reference. I would love to collect [art] at some point, but I think the whole rap/art world thing is getting kind of corny.”
Jay recently responded to those comments with the following line in the “We Made It” freestyle with Jay Electronica:
“Sorry Mrs Drizzy for so much art talk, silly me rappin’ about shit that I really bought.”
And that effectively sums it up. My former favourite artist of all time is obviously happy to just go back to talking about how much stuff he has in the face of criticism. Alas, I don’t see Jay making any attempt to make his music more inclusionary for the everyman at this point. But hey, can I really ask for much more from an artist whose given me more quality music in a few select albums than pretty much any other artist has in their entire career? Not really. To wrap up, it’s been a truly exceptional run – but I really feel my bank balance is no longer such that I can continue to appreciate his new music. To rephrase one of Mr Carter’s own lines, f*ck with you I cannot, precisely because you you have it.