From Jay to Z

Kevin Canfield

Jay‑Z might be the best rap­per of his era. He’s more charis­mat­ic than Eminem, more flu­ent than 50 Cent — and at the moment he has the hip-hop world in a state of shock.

Jay’s The Black Album, which came out near the end of 2003, will be his last, accord­ing to the Brook­lyn native. Just 34, he says he is ready to retire and con­cen­trate on his cloth­ing line, his Man­hat­tan night­club and oth­er busi­ness opportunities.

While he may yet change his mind, the hip-hop press is treat­ing Jay’s depar­ture as the sto­ry of the decade. Jay‑Z Retires?” reads the head­line on the cov­er of a recent issue of Vibe, a dozen pages of which are devot­ed to pon­der­ing his lega­cy.” It’s a lega­cy that, as Jay has admit­ted on many occa­sions, will have a lot to do with his tire­less pur­suit of pay­checks and loose women — or, as he once put it — more mon­ey, more cash, more hoes.”

Now almost a decade old, Jay’s brash brand of rap has become shop­worn. Which is why hip-hop fans should not spend too much time mourn­ing his absence: Jay‑Z’s lyri­cal sen­si­bil­i­ty has had its time; now it’s time for some­thing else.

Though he has recent­ly tried to tone it down, Jay has con­sis­tent­ly demon­strat­ed a genius for fash­ion­ing songs from his love of all things bling — Bent­leys, bejew­eled neck­laces and the like. Yet as he was installed as a glob­al celebri­ty, his vast pop­u­lar­i­ty also served to mar­gin­al­ize the sort of polit­i­cal­ly mind­ed records on which hip-hop was built.

The ear­li­est hip-hop, which began to infil­trate the main­stream in the 70s, was music of social protest. The son­ic exper­i­men­ta­tion of Afri­ka Bam­baataa and the right­eous anger of Grand­mas­ter Flash were reach­ing the mass­es; hip-hop was an urban growth indus­try. The 80s were even bet­ter, as artists like Pub­lic Ene­my and Boo­gie Down Pro­duc­tions proved they could move crowds and make them think, too.

The 90s, though, were a dif­fer­ent sto­ry. A decade that might’ve been ruled by the late Tupac Shakur was — at least from a mar­ket stand­point — dom­i­nat­ed by Snoop Dogg’s fun but fleet­ing raps and the emp­ty pos­tur­ing of P. Did­dy and assort­ed clones.

Where P. Did­dy is a savvy busi­ness­man but not much of a tal­ent, Jay is a sin­gu­lar fig­ure in hip-hop his­to­ry. He wrote hard-boiled songs about his child­hood in Brooklyn’s rough Mar­cy Projects, but he also was that rare fig­ure who main­tained street cred while deriv­ing inspi­ra­tion from Broad­way; his 1998 hit Hard Knock Life” bor­rows lib­er­al­ly from the musi­cal Annie.” But more than any­thing, he told sto­ries about what it was like to be a young, sin­gle and, dur­ing the sec­ond half of his career, a multimillionaire.

In terms of his bank­a­bil­i­ty, it was sheer bril­liance, like the record­ing industry’s ver­sion of James Bond: Watch the swash­buck­ling Jay‑Z roll up in his Benz, intim­i­date a few wannabe MCs, win the atten­tion of that evening’s It” girl and repair to his swanky hotel suite for an all-night party.

But as Jay was liv­ing very, very large, per­form­ers who reached back to the sem­i­nal sounds and mes­sages of the 70s and 80s — artists like Juras­sic 5, Com­mon, Tal­ib Kweli, Black Star — were mar­gin­al­ized. Sure, they got record deals and occa­sion­al play on MTV2, but they were, plain and sim­ple, out of fashion.

Con­sid­er, for exam­ple, the tepid recep­tion afford­ed one of the best records (in any genre of music) released in recent years, Juras­sic 5’s Pow­er in Num­bers, which came out in late 2002. A bril­liant col­lab­o­ra­tive effort fea­tur­ing the work of half a dozen per­form­ers (and var­i­ous guests), it was an infec­tious and smart record that grap­pled with gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, glob­al­ism and nation­al pol­i­tics. Its tracks were built on spare, old-school beats and an admirable ral­ly­ing cry — We try and give you some­thing that you ain’t used to” — yet some­how it was large­ly ignored.

Whether he emerges from his ear­ly adieu, Jay‑Z’s lega­cy is secure. It’s time now to wel­come a few more voic­es to a stage that, with the appar­ent retire­ment of a hip-hop Hall of Famer, is wide open.

Kevin Can­field is a writer in New York.
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