Component is a section of Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, David Turner takes a look at the most recent portion of Jay Z’s music career and argues that it might be his best.
During the seven-year span from Reasonable Doubt to The Black Album, Jay Z sold a traditional persona to audiences. He rapped about money, clothes, and hoes; he had songs of regret and remorse. Fans and critics responded well, but Jay eventually grew out of it, distancing himself with increased age. He moved away into a persona that, in reviewing Jay’s last album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, RedEye Chicago’s Ernest Wilkins captured well, saying it gave him the feeling of “…finding out that your lame uncle used to play with Isaac Hayes.” The glory days of Jay Z’s music, while memorable and well lauded, lacked an artistic struggle. If he hadn’t returned after The Black Album (his “retirement” album), that shortcoming would have partially defined his career, but another kind of struggle is now resulting in his most interesting work.
2006’s Kingdom Come, Jay Z’s first post-retirement album, showed him unsure of where his music should belong in the world. The album received negative reviews, disappointed fans, and even Jay ranked it at the bottom of his catalog. He was no longer selling a persona of a pimp or gangster, easy as it would be to stomach either one. He was navigating the waters of a black, post-successful lifestyle, and audiences did not connect.
Scrambling for a way to reengage with his fans, Jay Z released a “throwback” album in 2007 with American Gangster. Taking inspiration from the Ridley Scott movie, he reentered the talk of drugs sales and toasting to the high life of those illegal trades. He cynically morphed his story back into the sex and violence, which has been an acceptable way for black people to be perceived as achieving success. But Kelefa Sanneh, in The New York Times, observed an increased emptiness in Jay Z’s work. “Often,” Sanneh wrote, “a rapper who outgrows the low life can still rap about the high life: apparently serious spending and casual sex never get old. But Jay Z seems to have outgrown the high life too.” Jay announced his retirement, came out of it, and made a throwback album all within a four-year period. Clearly, he was unsure of his direction.
That is what has made his last two major albums, Magna Carta Holy Grail and the Kanye West collaboration Watch the Throne before it, such intriguing projects. No longer a grab-bag of filmic clichés, he let his guard down and allowed his music to focus more on his own life. It’s what worked on Kingdom Come and numerous guest verses at the time before he retreated away from that stance after the album’s harsh backlash. It was the Jay of Kanye West’s “Diamonds (Remix)” and Young Jeezy’s “Go Crazy”: a rapper starting to bask in his legend, splitting time between his old life and boardroom meetings. The aspirational quality of rap is perfectly distilled here in verses that move from the well-worn streets into Jay Z’s post-musical world. It was executive rap, yacht rap, luxury rap. Whatever it was called, there was little precedence for it.
Watch the Throne dealt with fatherhood, the lies of a post-racial society, and the ways that institutional racism are inescapable no matter the class ranks one climbs. Magna Carta Holy Grail re-examined many of those same thoughts about being black in America, but now he was more comfortably sitting with his family and trying to make sense of the world around them. These topics are rarely at the forefront of mainstream rap albums, and on Watch the Throne and Magna Carta, they were approached from the perspective of a rapper who has had a good while to ruminate on these topics. Concerns of being black in a America are the subtext of nearly all black music, but in a genre that values youth almost above everything, hearing a rapper over 40 consider these issues is striking. Rappers like 2 Chainz and Juicy J have made late career comebacks regurgitating the same tropes they’ve done their entire career, but Jay was not afraid to leave behind his 1998, 2004, and even 2007 selves.
Jay, in re-establishing himself, held little concern with older pop cultural images. Instead, he was creating his own vision of what it means to be black and on top of the world. That is not a small feat. Nor does it invite immediate praise from outsiders. The issue for Jay Z — and this has been in his music for a decade — is that his new, high-class lifestyle appears to be off-putting to some people. That charge (combined with his racial background) led to more than one unfavorable review of Watch the Throne. After all, hearing a rapper dedicate a song to his daughter is hard to appreciate, but “Big Pimpin’” is universal. #mylaugh
Normal expectations are outside of Jay’s interest, at least these days. It gets tiring to hear the same stories of struggle and, in turn, stories of overcoming that struggle. Jay Z eventually realized this, too. Instead of continuing to double down on the material that had previously been so successful, he progressed. Rappers are rarely asked to keep evolving as artists, but most often they’re not around long enough to prove they have the ability. Jay Z, over the last decade, was able to take the opportunity to explore post-success and make music that reveals the guy within the business coat. Music of struggle has long been the more compelling stance for an artist, but when every day is a struggle, music of success sounds so much sweeter.