There’s a reason why Shawn Corey Carter is the first rapper inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. It’s not because he’s sold over 100 million records, amassed 21 Grammys, or is the solo artist with the most No. 1 albums on the Billboard charts. Rather, it’s because he’s done this—and so much more—while rhyming about a specific permutation of the human condition that is uniquely African-American: the pursuit of the American Dream fueled by self-determination in the face of unbeatable odds, the triumph of ingenuity and resourcefulness over systemic impoverishment and political indifference, the graduation from the school of a hard knocks to entry into the corridors of power and influence reserved for talented tenths and one percents.
It’s a wonder how he’s always made it look easy. And not just look easy, but also feel and sound easy, and natural. When he was introduced to us on his former mentor Jaz’s “The Originators” in 1990, JAY Z was speed-rhyming, flipping his tongue, popping syllables and unveiling iggity-style verbal flows that would, short years later, take over rap’s vocal sensibilities when popularized by the Hit Squad’s Das EFX. In many ways, his appearance on that song is a Rosetta Stone of his decades-long dialogue with the public. There he was, not producing a single bead of sweat as he ran through strings of internal rhyme while holding a conversation with the listener.
It would be another four years before the other parts of his persona would come to be shared. On 1994’s “I Can’t Get Wid Dat,” his approach to rapping had become more relaxed, but his writing had grown even more intricate. “I give you a snotty nose from body blows/ Nobody’s safe at a party/ Even Gotti goes adios.” It was the smooth tough guy talk of man ascendant player. He bragged about his wealth, going as far as mimicking the sound of a currency counter. In the following lines he slowed down to catch his breath without breaking his monologue or falling off beat, asking, “How many styles I gotta kick to prove I’m def?”
With his next solo appearance, “In My Lifetime,” he emerged, almost fully formed as the rapper that would become the Greatest Of All Time. His most fortuitous advent in this moment was not his technical proficiency nor his verbal dexterity, but his admission of his life as a drug dealer—not just sharing tales of street corner hand-to-hand sales, but waxing from the theretofore untold viewpoint of middle management. Even before he dropped his first album on his own label, he was already thinking bigger and smarter than everyone around him:
I don’t hassle with capsules, ‘cause that’ll make the grass grow
And get a project n-gga paid up the asshole
If I’ma risk a frisk, gettin’ my wrists wrapped up in steel
I’m out here trying to make a mil
These formative years—the period that a few affectionately refer to as “Umlaut Jay” because he was officially branded as “Jaÿ-Z” during this time—are necessary to understand to see that JAY Z has never been a static character, but an evolution borne of Shawn Carter’s life and times.
His pathology was laid bare on his debut album, 1996’s Reasonable Doubt, which stands as perhaps the most textured and virtuoso musical document that rap has ever produced on the insights of a narcotics trafficker’s mentality. The album is overflowing with strong narratives: there’s a violent story of two friends who become enemies on “D’evils,” the real-time discussion of pushing out a drug rival on “Friend Or Foe,” the mentorship of a young dealer (played by his real-life protégé Memphis Bleek) on “Coming Of Age.” Simply to prove his technical facilities, there’s “22 Two’s” where he plays a masterful game of homophones.
The power of Reasonable Doubt comes not just from the creative conceits, but the way its author melds music, delivery, and format to fit his moods—the use of Isaac Hayes’ “The Look of Love” on “Can I Live” provides mid-tempo flourishes for his soliloquy of crime philosophy; “Friend Or Foe” and “22 Two’s” have no hooks, but are bookended by skit-like conversations that deepen the context; “Can’t Knock The Hustle,” a double entendre about the rap game and the crack game analogs musicians to dope pushers, is the big swing for radio that features Mary J. Blige and samples Marcus Miller’s “Much Too Much,” moves which subtly fortify the message. Reasonable Doubt is an album suite in ways that many rap records are not, with mood and meaning playing into sequencing.
His second album, In My Lifetime Vol. 1, created as a response to the death of his friend The Notorious B.I.G., revisits many of the same themes of its predecessor—the paranoia of “Streets is Watching,” the metaphor of “Rap Game/Crack Game,” the sequel of “Friend Or Foe ’98,” the soul-baring closer “You Must Love Me.” But JAY was also expanding. During a time when getting rap on the radio required many more compromises than it does today, he was learning how to properly craft a crossover song on his own terms.
His guest appearances on R&B songs by female duo Changing Faces and the UK’s Another Level allowed him to hone his cameo abilities to a fine point, easily fitting his voice and melding his subject matter to unfamiliar surroundings. As contrasts, he used his mixtape appearances to refine the vision of the street world he was sharing, his freestyles became playgrounds for ideas on form and message—a far shot from when his guest appearances with artists like Queens’ Mic Geronimo, longtime associates Original Flavor, and his forbearer Big Daddy Kane, were focused on sharing as many ideas as space would allow.
This sense of economy and context would serve him well—it’s how he’d go on to craft rags-to-riches hits like the Annie-sampling “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem),” slang-filled boasts like “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” and conceptual feats like “Venus Vs. Mars,” as well as guest appearances with his wife Beyoncé (“’03 Bonnie and Clyde,” “Crazy in Love,” “Upgrade U”) and Pharrell “Frontin’,” matching mood and intensity each time.
Through it all, JAY Z has been one of the most adroit specialists rap has ever seen, full of Easter eggs and hidden meanings. But, moreover, he’s shared the guarded feelings of a man lusting for power, wrestling with demons and discarding women. It’s been the same river, but the man who stepped into it each time was different. On Reasonable Doubt’s “Cashmere Thoughts,” he rhymed, “My voice is linen, spitting venom up in the minds of young women.” Seventeen years and countless verses later, he was telling his daughter to freely lean on a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting in his kitchen because she owns on “Picasso Baby.” In the interim, he chronicled the path that led to his wealth and power and the stark stakes that simultaneously birthed a lust for exclusive luxury and a disregard for the trappings of fame. And he did it better than anyone else.