20 October 2023

The Come-Up of Jay-Z

I saw Jay-Z perform live once, back in the 1990s at Hofstra University, via an event organized by the school's Black students' union.  This was back when no one foresaw that he would become an  international A-lister.  But we, the fans of (New York) hip-hop knew who Jigga was, primarily because Jigga he had just scored a hit, Ain't No Nigga (1996), featuring Foxy Brown.  In a way, that was the song that put Jay-Z on the map or at least identified him as a unique, noteworthy artist.

Jay-Z's first big hit was 1997's Ain't No Nigga,
alongside Foxy Brown.

Carter did something during that performance that I don't think I'll ever forget.  The event was held in the university's basketball stadium (which was relatively small at the time), with the audience basically being split in two, i.e. bleachers being situated on either side of the court.  So he got to rapping Ain't No Nigga, sans Foxy Brown, who wasn't there.

At the beginning of his performance, Jigga faced the audience on one side of the court and was like 'everybody throw your hands in the air'.  And I don't know, it's like cats were too embarrassed to respond or something.  It was sorta a shock moment, similar to when a comedian stands in front of a crowd and tells a joke, but nobody laughs.  And I was sitting there feeling embarrassed Jay-Z even moreso than the shy audience members, since the stoplight was on him, wondering how he was going to respond.

But it was his reaction that always stuck in my head.  Jigga just went 'alright then, f*ck it', went to the other side of the court and started rapping to the people there instead.  They weren't overly boisterous themselves, but at least were more receptive, seeing that this man didn't give AF and was going to do his thing regardless.  And now looking back, I identify that as one of the main qualities which contributed to Shawn Carter's success.  Fate was on his side, in a manner of speaking, but he also wasn't afraid to seize the moment.


Earlier this year, Billboard named Jay-Z 'the greatest rapper of all-time'.  But Jigga wasn't even the most-talented rapper of his era.  He didn't really hit his lyrical stride, i.e. become a master emcee if you will, until around The Black Album (2003).  Jigga's most-impressive song lyrically, at least that I've heard, is Empire State of Mind, which didn't come until 2009:

A close second is probably Thank You, which was dropped that same year...

...though 2003's Allure is nothing to sneeze at either, a song that actually makes me feel like I'm back riding down the streets of New York:

I knew a couple of heads who were up on Jay-Z in the 1990s, but it wasn't until The Blueprint (2001) that people started talking like he's the best rapper in the game.  But Jigga achieving that status was not only the result of the type of confidence that could even dominate a nonresponsive audience.  His career also benefitted from the death of Tupac in 1996 and the Notorious B.I.G. the following year.

Pac, heading into the late-1990s, was the top rapper.  He wasn't necessarily the best lyricist, in a manner of speaking, either.  But he was a fearless yet lovable artist who got into a lot of trouble, and in the rap game those types of behaviors tend to translate into money and popularity.

After Tupac was murdered, then Biggie became the king of rap, and at first it looked like his reign would be a long one.  But of course, he ended up losing his life just a few months after Shakur.  And one thing a lot of people forget is that Jay-Z was not the next in line.  He wasn't the prince of late-1990s' rap, so to speak.

Rather, it was another Bad Boy artist named Ma$e Murda who was in position to take over.  For instance, he co-starred on Mo Money Mo Problems (1997), Biggie's first-notable posthumous collaboration that was released as a single, which also resulted in one of the most-iconic hip-hop videos ever.  Shortly after Pac died, Suge Knight got locked up, and Death Row Records proceeded to fall off.  But Puffy, relatively speaking, was able to keep his nose clean, and he retained a number of trending artists under Bad Boy, with Mase being at the top of the list.  Diddy also personally dropped 1997's No Way Out, a classic album itself whose success is illustrative of how wide open the game was at that moment, considering that he isn't even a rapper per se.

However, Mase retired from the industry in 1999, with the stated reason being what he perceived as a "calling from God".  A couple of months after making that announcement, his second album, Double Up, came out.  If you look at the cover, you'll notice that he's even dressed like a pastor, and upon retirement Murda did become an ordained minister.  But just to note, Double Up didn't do nearly as well as his debut joint, 1997's Harlem World.  Logic would dictate that its failure had something to do with him retiring.  But in any event, those series of events set the stage for a new king of rap to crowned.


And that someone ended up being Jay-Z.  This wasn't something that happened instantaneously, not until The Blueprint, which by that time was Jigga's sixth-studio album.  All of his first six LPs came out between 1996 and 2001, and when the first one, Reasonable Doubt, was dropped, he was already 26 years old.  As evidence of how far Shawn had evolved as an artist since first coming on the scene in 1989, take a look at the first single in his discography, Hawaiian Sophie, as a feature of his mentor, Jaz-O.  This is an effort that even Tupac made fun of:

and compare it to that of Izzo, the lead single from The Blueprint:

I had a chance to read Jay-Z's memoir Decoded (2011) a few years back, and, to my remembrance, he doesn't attribute his come-up to work ethic per se, though such is implied.  Rather, the mid-1990s was a pivotal era in the history of hip-hop.  If you listen to the influential rap albums prior to the Bad Boy era, such as Snoop Dogg's Doggystyle (1993), the Wu-Tang Clan's Enter the 36 Chambers or Nas's Illmatic, they weren't really about riches.  Back then, chillin' was more or less defined as having nice kicks, a sexy chick and an abundance of whatever intoxicant(s) one prefers.

However, largely as the result of the reign of Bad Boy, rappers were no longer just biggin' up popular street brands but also started promoting those which were expensive or trendy no matter what walk of life you come from.  They became mainstream within the context of commercial America, so to speak.  Jay-Z, Dame Dash and them caught wind of that trend earlier than most and, instead of behaving like street artists who felt lucky just to have their own label, decided to approach the game as intelligent businessmen who knew their worth.  Again, if I remember Decoded correctly, they faced discouraging levels of rejection at first.  But going back to that performance at Hofstra, Jigga and co. just said 'f*ck it' and keep forging ahead.

I'll be honest and say that I was never really big on The Blueprint and, upon doing this research, was shocked to discover just how highly professional critics regarded it.  However, I always had a strong liking for Renegade, Jigga's classic collaboration with Eminem, as found on the album...

...as well as the live version of Song Cry alongside The Roots...

...which is actually featured on Jay-Z: Unplugged, a project that came out later in 2001, though the original is found on The Blueprint.

Also, just to point out, it was around this time (or more specifically that of 2000's Roc La Familia) that Shawn first started throwing up the Roc-A-Fella hand sign, which many people believe may have attributed to his unprecedented success as a rapper though on an esoteric level.  But when you look back at the turn of the century, he did have a better 2001, from a performance standpoint, than any other rap purist.  And that was something that both the industry and the streets for the most part agreed on.


I have a lot of respect for any African-American male in the entertainment field who maintains a marriage with a Black woman, because as you can clearly see these days, that's not how many of them make it.  Jigga lived the dreams of Biggie - in a manner of speaking, when you think back to the latter's Just Playing (1994) - by going on to hook up with "the hottest chick in the game" himself.

And of course, Beyonce is absolutely no joke in her own right.  As of the writing, it's safe to say that she's the most-powerful Black musician in America.  I'm not trying to imply that Jay-Z married her for money, because obviously he was genuinely smitten (if you check out his 2004 documentary Fade to Black for instance).  But from a business perspective, he made one helluva choice.  Carter and Knowles have fed off of each other to become the most-famous power couple in music.


Jay-Z was the rapper who really made it chic for hip-hop artists to invest in businesses that don't have anything to do with music or entertainment per se.  Most simply put, he made it big in business by investing in booze and real estate, as well as a bunch of other stuff along the way, such as restaurants and footwear, besides media.  This resulted in Sean becoming the first rapper to make a billion dollars, and as of this writing he's said to be worth $2.5 billion.


Practically every rapper has a crew.  This is a necessity, if for no reason then protection.  But besides that most rappers, when they're coming up, practice alongside their homeys, as part of a clique.  So then if one of them makes it big, it becomes his responsibility to pull others up.

As such, you will notice that most emcees try to feature their boys on record and, as has become more common, start their own labels and sign them or others as artists.  Again, this is something that practically all of them do in one way or another.  Nelly had the St. Lunatics, Eminem with D-12, Nas and the Bravehearts - so on and so forth.  In most cases, the homeys or signees never reach anywhere near the status as the star rapper who put them on.

Jay-Z and his protégées, Kanye West and Rihanna, all appeared on the
Forbes' billionaire list in 2022. I don't believe any other music crew,
past or present, rap or otherwise, can make such a claim.

However, Jigga was instrumental in putting out two of the greatest musicians of the 21st century - Kanye West and Rihanna.  He supported a bunch of others, such as Freeway, Beanie Sigel and of course Memph Bleek.  But the success of Kanye and Rihanna - or either one of them individually - trumps that of most other hip-hop crews/signees combined.  The only rapper I can think of who can be mentioned in the same breath as Jay-Z when it comes to having launched the careers of a couple of iconic artists is Lil Wayne.


Looking back at the trajectory of Jigga's career, it sorta reminds me of old saying that "luck is... when preparation meets opportunity", though perhaps in his case it's probably more like 'confidence meets opportunity'.  The purpose of this post is not to gush over Shawn Carter.  But as a hip-hop historian, there's two things about him as a hustler and businessman which really intrigue me.

First is the way he unexpectedly emerged from all of the turmoil of 1990s' hip-hop to become the top rapper in the industry.  And second is how, in a way, Jigga has yet to give up that position.

Warren Buffet, "the most successful investor in history",
has strongly praised Jigga's business skills.

Jay-Z has never been the best emcee, yet he was recently dubbed the greatest rapper ever.  And that's a difficult argument to refute, as besides being a legendary musician, he's also had the type of business success that has even warranted praise from the likes of Warren Buffet, who probably never listened to a rap song in his entire life.