Primer: Jay-Z

Primer is The A.V. Club's ongoing series of beginners' guides to pop culture's most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you.

This week: Jay-Z struggled long and hard to go from a childhood in New York's Marcy Projects and a young adulthood spent selling drugs to famously headlining a sold-out "retirement" show at Madison Square Garden. He followed it up with a similarly dramatic, high-profile shift from being hip-hop's biggest star to the guy with the corner office whom everyone on his label complains isn't doing enough to promote their album. With Jay-Z's American Gangster now on the shelves, it's an excellent time to look back at the long, distinguished career of one of Brooklyn's finest.

Jay-Z 101:

After bubbling under the radar for years, most infamously as the hype man for mentor Jaz-O in the beyond-embarrassing early-'90s "Hawaiian Sophie" video, Jay-Z broke defiantly and permanently into the mainstream with 1998's Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life, a savvy combination of gangsta grit and pop so infectious that even churchgoing grandmothers could sing along to the choruses.

Where fatalists like Scarface, 2Pac, Nas, and Notorious B.I.G. wrestled constantly with suicidal despair in their death-haunted music, Jay-Z was too interested in making a killing as a businessman to contemplate killing himself. So his hits pumped up the celebratory vibe of crossovers like B.I.G.'s "Juicy" while purposefully avoiding the pitch-black nihilism of his gangsta-rap peers. This made him more palatable to mainstream audiences, but also robbed his music of depth. On his weaker albums, Jay-Z can come off as cold and calculating, a businessman more interested in making money than art. 

The Annie-sampling crossover smash "Hard Knock Life" was an unapologetically pop tribute to the good life, and a defiant celebration of Jay-Z's ascent from an orphan of the streets to hip-hop's Daddy Warbucks. With Hard Knock Life, Jay-Z traded some of his underground cachet for mainstream riches while holding onto his status as a critics' darling, but his shiny pop stardom came at a price: By glossing up his sound and dumbing down his lyrics, he undoubtedly lost some of the purists who gravitated to Reasonable Doubt. It was a trade-off he was obviously willing to accept.

 

From Hard Knock Life onward, producers weren't considered hot unless Jay-Z rhymed over their beats. Any rapper with a healthy recording budget can rhyme over a Timbaland or Neptunes beat. Jay-Z's genius was to find, nurture, and become synonymous with the hottest producers alive. So, did Jay-Z score hit after hit because he was working with top producers, or did top producers score big hits because they were working with Jay-Z? There's truth in both answers. Jay-Z enjoys an unusually symbiotic relationship with the top ranks of hip-hop beatsmiths. As the fascinating scenes of Kanye West, Pharrell, and Timbaland peddling their wares to Jay-Z in the concert documentary Fade To Black convey, Jay-Z is a picky, demanding collaborator who brings out the best in the people he works with.

He's had less success grooming rappers. Though the market rejected some of his pet artists (Memphis Bleek, cough, cough), and he rejected others (Amil, whose career sank after Jay-Z kicked her out of Roc-A-Fella's inner circle) the upper echelon of hip-hop luminaries is studded with producers Jay-Z propelled to stardom, especially on the production side.

With the 2001 album The Blueprint, Jay-Z made superstars out of beatsmiths Kanye West and Just Blaze, two sample-based producers whose lush, cinematic soundscapes tapped into a vibrant vein of soul music. Jay-Z's lyrics followed suit. "Song Cry" said it all.

 

On standout tracks like "Heart of The City (Ain't No Love)" and "U Don't Know," Jay-Z made music rich in emotion and pathos, timeless songs that wouldn't feel as dated as the wiggly electronic sound that powered his early hits. Appropriately enough, the guest-rapper-light album became the sturdy blueprint for many of his subsequent triumphs, most notably The Black Album and American Gangster.

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Intermediate work:

Jay-Z made such an indelible impression on the Timbaland-produced single "Jigga What, Jigga Who (Originators 99)" that countless rappers borrowed his liquid, machine-gun delivery when rhyming over Timbaland's beats. Taken from his 2000 album The Dynasty: Roc La Familia 2000, "I Just Want To Love You (Give It To Me)," his first collaboration with a pair of hungry young Virginia beatsmiths called the Neptunes, helped set the template for countless Neptunes hits to come. Flashy, celebratory lyrics lead into a charmingly amateurish Pharrell Williams-sung hook set against nervous but caffeinated and infectious production, and topped off with a flashy video nakedly glorifying arch materialism. 

 

Jay-Z has a chameleon-like ability to adapt to the sound of the moment, whether that sound is the rap-metal of Linkin Park on Collision Course, the Casio gymnastics of Swizz Beats, or perhaps most dramatically, the Bollywood-meets-Knight Rider culture clash of the "Beware The Boys" remix, a one-off collaboration with Punjabi MC. Jay-Z's detractors say his mania for tapping into the hottest trends is evidence of his empty, shameless opportunism. Fans, meanwhile, hail it as proof of his versatility and flexibility.

On The Dynasty, that means co-opting the Neptunes' signature sound and taking a Rick Rock G-Funk groove out for a spin on the West Coast-flavored "Change The Game." But the most important collaboration here is undoubtedly "This Can't Be Life," a collaboration with a young Chicago producer named Kanye West, whose future and destiny would forever be linked to Jay-Z's.

 

Originally designed as a Roc-A-Fella compilation, The Dynasty was eventually marketed as a Jay-Z album designed to showcase Roc-A-Fella artists Beanie Sigel—who never lived up to his potential, in spite of a slew of stellar guest appearances—and Memphis Bleek, whose recording career has been DOA in spite of Jay-Z's enthusiastic endorsement. Nonetheless, it now sounds like Jay-Z's loosest, funkiest effort to date. Production-wise, it's largely a product of its times, but the West track, a moody, soulful meditation on the bleak realities of street life, and Jay-Z's segue from hustling to music, pointed the way toward a more timeless sound.

The dirty little secret of Jay-Z's career is that he's often only as good as his beats. But since he has pretty much every household-name producer on speed dial, that's seldom a problem. He has so much clout that, with 2003's The Black Album, he was even able to lure Rick Rubin back to hip-hop production for "99 Problems." That irresistible throwback track proved there was nothing Jay-Z couldn't rap over, from electronic squiggles to head-banging heavy-metal guitars.

 

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The Black Album was posited as both a "retirement album" and yet another celebration of the life and career of Jay-Z, a man for whom every day is his birthday, Christmas, and the Fourth Of July combined. The hype was ubiquitous and unavoidable: Only Jay-Z could make a major selling point out of the fact that he was actually writing his lyrics down this time, instead of stashing them away in his mental Rolodex minutes before hitting the booth. The hype continues with the first track, "December 4th," which opens with Jay-Z's mom gushing, "He was the last of my four children / The only one who didn't give me any pain, when I gave birth to him / And that's how I knew that he was a special child."

Like a hip-hop episode of This Is Your Life, The Black Album brought together many of the people who made that special child into an icon, from Kanye West and Just Blaze to Timbaland and the Neptunes, in addition to newcomers like 9th Wonder and The Buchanans. The Black Album showcased a more introspective side of Jay-Z, who eschewed even a single guest rapper. It would have made for a terrific swan song, if only Jay-Z, with his Barnum-esque flair for self-promotion, had made good on all those retirement promises.

Advanced studies:

It's telling that where Irv Gotti and Suge Knight chose the label names Murder Inc. and Death Row in a more-or-less successful bid to scare the bejeezus out of white America (and thereby win the affection of teenagers everywhere), Jay-Z and his comrades chose Roc-A-Fella, a variation on a name synonymous with old white money. Jay-Z has always been a capitalist first and an artist second. Where other gangsta-rap luminaries venerated the street hustler as an outlaw living outside the strictures of a racist, oppressive power structure, Jay-Z posited the crack dealer down the block as the model of a smart, flexible small businessman. For Jay-Z, selling drugs was a means to an end, not an existential destiny. He's a hustler, baby, albeit one willing and eager to leave the street behind.

Jay-Z's purest album, 1996's Reasonable Doubt, is filled with the gut-wrenching angst of the black-market businessman whose fat bank roll can't begin to cover up the shame of poisoning his community and making his mom cry. But Jay-Z made sure to undercut the brooding with celebratory swagger, most notably on the Notorious B.I.G.-assisted "Brooklyn's Finest," an atomic bomb of a New York anthem that forever linked Jay-Z to B.I.G.'s outsized legacy. Jay-Z's lightning-fast flow betrays his debt to the tongue-twisting virtuosity of Fu-Schnickens and Das EFX, while the cinematic imagery, Scarface worship, and mafia fixation in his lyrics show a clear debt to Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.

Jay-Z had to simplify his style to win over the mainstream, which leaves Reasonable Doubt an invaluable document of him at his rawest and least compromising. His biggest commercial triumphs were still to come, but not even Jay-Z, with his limitless self-regard, could have imagined that he'd still be on top 11 years later. An oft-overlooked key to Jay-Z's success lies in his precise diction: In sharp contrast to the slurred, grimy delivery of his rival 50 Cent, Jay-Z enunciates clearly even when using slang destined to confound much of his white fan base.

 

Perhaps the most famous and influential illegal bootleg ever created couldn't have existed without The Black Album. Danger Mouse's 2004 breakthrough project The Grey Album fused samples from The Beatles' sprawling masterwork The White Album with a cappella vocals from Jay-Z's The Black Album, for the mash-up to end all mash-ups. Though a vast army of lawyers ensured that the result would never receive anything resembling a legal release, the project instantly transformed Danger Mouse from a respected but semi-obscure underground producer to one of the hottest and most sought-after beatsmiths around.

The album surprisingly works as something more than a cheeky postmodern stunt. Danger Mouse stays away from obvious samples and transforms the familiar into new and nearly unrecognizable sounds, while Jay-Z holds his own against rock royalty. Throughout his career, Jay-Z has traveled smoothly between the mainstream and the underground, gangsta rap and the pop world. Here, he crashes into the rarified domain of classic rock, like Aerosmith bursting into Run DMC's rehearsal space, with similarly influential and delightful results.

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Miscellany:

Jay-Z is in a privileged position where he can call up his old buddy ?uestlove and recruit The Roots as his house band whenever the occasion merits it. In the standout edition in MTV's oft-inessential live-music series Unplugged, Jay-Z and The Roots offer a relaxed, soulful retrospective of Jay-Z's impressive library of pop smashes, while backup vocalist Jaguar Wright does everything short of taking away Jay-Z's microphone in her bid to steal the spotlight. Though nowhere near as essential as Jay-Z's handful of masterpieces, 2001's Jay-Z: Unplugged is a nice summation of his career, and a nifty companion piece to his similarly solid concert film Fade To Black, which also featured The Roots as an overqualified backing band.

 

Jay-Z is a relative anomaly among rappers of his stature in that he's never made much of an effort to cross over to the big screen, but he contributed a cameo appearance to 2003's Death Of A Dynasty, a silly little vanity project that history has rendered deeply ironic. The glib satire follows a hapless white hip-hop reporter (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) as he plunges into the glitzy high life of Roc-A-Fella records. Moss-Bachrach's sleazy crimes against journalism threaten to drive a wedge between Jay-Z (played by Robert Stapleton) and head honcho (and Death Of A Dynasty director) Damon Dash, until a last-minute reversal illustrates that Jay-Z and Dash were manipulating Moss-Bachrach all along. Dash and Jay-Z climactically break the fourth wall by appearing as themselves to assure audiences that Roc-A-Fella was forever, and Jay-Z and Dash's partnership would never end. Shortly afterward, Jay-Z and Dash's partnership ended, bitterly and publicly. Unless, of course, it's all an elaborate Death Of A Dynasty-like ruse.

 

Demerits:

The Best Of Both Worlds: It must have looked good on paper—one of rap's biggest names joining forces with a R&B icon for an entire album—but 2002's ironically titled The Best Of Both Worlds was doomed from inception by lyrical emptiness, lack of chemistry, and the perverse decision to enlist pop-rap schlockmeisters the Trackmasters for primary production. Sadly, though predictably, that production is as generic and forgettable as Jay-Z and Kelly's sleepwalking contributions. Best's underperformance with critics and audiences somehow didn't keep the less-than-dynamic duo from becoming repeat offenders with…

Unfinished Business: For a smart businessman, Jay-Z can make some staggeringly boneheaded moves, like releasing a follow-up to a collaboration no one liked in the first place. 2004's Unfinished Business reunited Jay-Z and R. Kelly for another forgettable exercise in soulless hip-hop/R&B fusion. The whole regrettable endeavor seemed like little more than an excuse to send the pair on a lucrative joint tour, but even that proved a legendary disaster after fighting between the pop stars' camps led to cancellations and a flurry of legal activity. That should at least keep Jay-Z and Kelly from subjecting fans to a third disastrous joint. The public decided that, album title to the contrary, Jay-Z and Kelly were definitely finished, at least as a collaborative entity.

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The essentials:

1. Reasonable Doubt (1996): Roc-A-Fella's first release might also be its best. It's a pure, unusually focused, literate exploration of the hustler's mentality and the capitalistic ethos, as seen from the perspective of a hungry young upstart trying to make the leap from small-time player to kingpin.

2. The Black Album (2003): Like many rappers, Jay-Z has always been his own biggest fan. The buzz for Jay-Z's "retirement" album was deafening, but unlike his 2006 "comeback," Kingdom Come, this one managed to live up to its hype, in spite of a few bum tracks (the Madonna-biting "Justify My Thug" is just as awful as its title suggests) and the weak single "Change Clothes." By this point in his career, Jay-Z had earned the right to celebrate himself, but damned if his faux-retirement party didn't seem to stretch on for months, only to be followed by one of the most public un-retirements in pop-culture history.

3. The Blueprint (2001): Released on Sept. 11, 2001, The Blueprint was nothing less than a statement of purpose from a rapper intent on putting the soul and substance back into hip-hop. Driven by Kanye West and Just Blaze's production, it paved the way for West's ascent to solo stardom as Roc-A-Fella's biggest, most important artist, as well as the guy signing paychecks.

4. Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life (1998): Hard Knock Life is in many ways, Jay-Z's Thriller: Damn near every song is a monster hit that spent the last half of 1998 blaring triumphantly from radios, cars, and clubs. Such ubiquity can be a quick route to career-killing overexposure, but nine years later, Jay-Z is still a very big fish in a very big pond.

5. The Grey Album (2004): Danger Mouse's shotgun wedding between Young Hov and the Fab Four is a milestone in the anxious interplay between rock and rap, the underground and the mainstream, creative freedom and the unstinting laws of copyright. It's the most influential album you're legally prohibited from hearing, but that hasn't kept bootleggers and Jay-Z aficionados from circulating this project far and wide.

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