I often claim that the on-going argument of who “the best rapper of all time” isn’t a valid debate because the position of the “greatest” is strictly based off one’s opinion and their perspective on what they view as legitimate regulations for contention as the “best”. As superficial as this sounds, it is true, every rapper/artist connects with a person in a unique way. For instance, Eminem maybe a hip-hop fan’s favorite artist because of his affluent ability to connect with audiences through his detailed accounts of pain and despair or Tupac might be a rap fan’s favorite artist because of his inclusion of African-American strife and realism in his music. I’m writing this essay based on the regulations that most hip-hop fans would generally base their opinions of “the greatest” on: importance/impact, flow/cadence, lyrics, and innovation. With all these regulations in consideration, I claim Bed-Stuy’s own Jay-Z as the best rapper of all time and the most influential artist in hip-hop’s history, here’s why:
Importance/Impact: Rap/Hip-Hop is still a fairly new genre compared to other mainstay genres such as rock and pop, as it only can trace its roots back to the late 70’s. Due to this, there has yet to be a rapper that has continued his career (while in being in hop-hop’s limelight) through his elder years. Rap is a “young man’s game” as most of the powerhouse artists are in their mid-twenties or early thirties. Artists/rappers continually get recycled through the mainstream loop as they usually have an expiration date of four albums before they are thrown on the back-burner. Jay-Z has transcended almost two decades and remained relevant while being viewed by rap fans and critics as the Michael Jordan of hip-hop music. He has transitioned from the mafiaoso-rap underground era of the mid 90’s to the artistically-mainstream influenced 2000’s with little struggle and has yet to drop a dud of an album (although some might argue his sophomore album, In My Lifetime Vol. 1 was in fact a dud). Although he hasn’t sold nearly as much as Eminem or Tupac, his ability to keep the mainstream audience and die-hard hip-hop fans awaiting his every move is unprecedented. Jay-Z is your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper, whenever this debate is brought up in hip-hop circles; his name is brought up constantly. Hova really brought rap into the mainstream at the turn of the century while still staying true to his past roots of lyrical complexity. He was the rapper that brought super-producers Timbaland and Pharrell to hip-hop prominence through songs like “Big Pimpin’” and “Just Give It to Me”. His album releases are constantly looked upon as enormous events in the rap community as ALL of his albums have gone platinum and his last eleven solo albums have debuted at number one, which is a record previously owned by Elvis. He introduced the hip-hop world to a then unknown Kanye West and Just Blaze on his classic 2001 album, The Blueprint, where he showcased his lyrical mastery over soul-driven productions. His co-signs have been enormous for current rap heavyweights, Jay Electronica and J.Cole, both of whom release top-tier rap music repeatedly. Jay-Z is the main artist who is taking hip-hop into the next tier of musical creditability as he has performed at presidential campaign stops, held concerts at baseball stadiums, and was the first rapper to headline the Glastonbury Music Festival. Jay-Z has also paved an avenue for hip-hop artists to collaborate with other artists outside the genre of rap as Chris Martin, Linkin Park, and Empire of the Sun are just some of the many artists outside of the genre that Jay-Z has connected with.
Flow: It is no secret that Jay-Z can flow effortlessly over tracks no matter how complex the beat pattern is. His delivery is profound as it never seems rushed or forced and how his multi-patterned cadence meshes with beats coherently. On numerous occasions he has stated that developing lyrics in his head has helped him in being able to correctly and organically construct his flow around a specific production. Jigga has been known to use pauses as “rests” and has shown the ability to switch tempos mid-verse as showcased in Memphis Bleek’s “Is That Your Chick?” His flow is quite impressive as his constructs clever wordplay while mastering the overlooked technique of the double and triple entendre. Jay-Z’s flow is similar to his mentor, Notorious B.I.G. in terms of cadence and delivery, which has caused rap fans/critics to label him as copier of B.I.G.’s flow which isn’t necessarily a bad thing as Biggie’s delivery was legendary. However, Jay has flexed his skills over fourteen total albums (eleven solo albums and three collaborative) as opposed to Biggie who only released one solo album while he was alive (Life After Death was released two weeks after his untimely passing). His versatile flow can be showcased on his classic hits “Can’t Knock Hustle”, “Hard Knock Life”, and The Doors-sampled “Takeover”. “I can run it back nigga ‘cause I’m straight with the ROC” – “Dirt of Your Shoulder”. Triple Entendre.
Lyrics: The bars Hov spits range from introspective lyrics about his hard upbringing in the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn, evident on his debut album Reasonable Doubt, to the lush, grandeur lyrics on Watch the Throne. Drug trafficking, crime, and imagery of affluent lifestyles were themes of his first couple albums as the Mafioso-rap theme frequented the hip-hop airwaves in the late 1990’s. His lyrical complexity slightly took a dive after he achieved critical acclaim with Reasonable Doubt and hits like “Dead Presidents” as he reached for the mainstream with hits like “Hard Knock Life”, “Money, Cash, Hoes”, and “IZZO (H.O.V.A.)’”. His content was still upper-echelon and structured but was conceived around his growing stardom and lust for the lavish lifestyle of fame. The early 2000’s found Jay-Z rapping about his old life of trapping in the projects while establishing his name as a business man with anthems like “99 Problems”, “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”, and “PSA”. In the mid to late 2000’s, Jay was subjected to content development as he rapped about his struggles with fame, petty rap beef, relationship with wife Beyonce, and legacy in hip-hop. The Blueprint 3, his eleventh solo album, provided the field for Hov to experiment with his content and aesthetic by creating anthems like “Run This Town”, “Empire State of Mind” and “On to the Next One” which were less about showing his lyrical prowess and more subjected to exhibiting his artistic creativity outside of rap norms. His most recent work Watch the Throne dealt with more general themes and world issues like black on black crime (“Murder to Excellence”), religion (“No Church in the Wild’), and his triumph through economical hardships (“Niggas in Paris”, “Who Gon’ Stop Me”, & “Otis”). Jay-Z repertoire of menacing lyrics catapults him above his contemporaries as he is had made a name for himself constructing memorable lines that cater to both the euphoric wants of the mainstream and the lyrical fiends hungry for wordplay and multi-layered bars. Hov’s impressive ability to transition from cinematic or 808-based production to pop-themed production without sound corny is also very notable.
Innovation: “I’m not a business man, I’m a business, man”, Roc-A-Fella Records was in fact an army/dynasty as they were stacked with rap heavyweights Beanie Sigel, Kanye West, Cam’ron, Dipset, Freeway, and State Property. The infamous “diamond” hand symbol is instantaneously recognizable to every 80’s or 90’s baby. Roc-A-Fella Records was one of the first if not the first label founded/owned by a rapper, which led to the ever-so-popular current theme of rappers owning their record label or imprint. Jay-Z was the first globally successful hip-hop entrepreneur as he started Rocawear, RocNation, the 40/40 night clubs, and numerous other business ventures. Although his clothing lines and sneaker collaborations were aesthetically appalling, you have to give credit where credit is due. He is also as I’m sure you all know, minority owner of the Brooklyn Nets, which later inspired other artists to own parts of sports teams including Justin Timberlake, Nelly, and Usher. His breakthroughs have led the pathway for hip-hop artists to expand their potential and creative ideas beyond just music. He struck up a deal with LiveNation, an astonishing 10-year/$150-million contract, which led to him constructing the historic Made in America Festival. According to Forbes, his net worth is near $500 million and continually growing with each business venture. Impressive.