Thursday, October 19, 2006

Jay-Z, The MJ of Rap

First, let me say that I believe Jay-Z to be one of the Top 3 rappers of all time. J, B.I.G. and Rakim are interchangeable within my Top 3.

Also, I believe Michael Jordan to be one of the 3 greatest basketball players ever. Mike, Wilt Chamberlain and Magic Johnson form the makeup of my NBA royalty.

I remember when MJ hit that jumper over Byron Russell (in Utah) as time was running out in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals. While it wasn’t the most spectacular shot Jordan had ever made, it was the perfect shot. From the (slight) push-off, to his composure while gathering himself, to the follow-through pose after the shot was made, that jumper was the period at the end of a most extraordinary career.

And by returning to the NBA two years later, he turned that period into a comma.

I do not believe anyone has the right to say when a player should retire; especially a player who played at the level MJ did. But make no mistake; by returning to the NBA with the Washington Wizards, he blew his chance of a fairytale ending.

I believe MJ when he says that he came back for the challenge of attempting to dominate the NBA at 40+, and that he did not come back for the glory or a chance to enhance his legend. I believe his words because I believe he understood that there was no way possible for him to add to his legend. Nothing, not another championship ring or scoring title could have increased the ideal that was MJ.

Jay-Z is following a similar path.

The Black Album was supposed to be the end of Jay-Z’s rap career. Like Jordan’s last shot as a Chicago Bull, The Black Album was not the best album J had ever created, but it was, in my opinion, perfect. As a rapper who claims to be the best, what better way for J to end his career than to ask What More Can I say? There was not anything left for him to say. As with MJ’s final shot, The Black Album was to be the period to J’s career.

And by returning to rap three years later, he is turning that period into a comma.

Again, Jay-Z has earned the right to decide when he should call it quits. That does not mean this is the best decision. Would another Platinum album raise his stature? How about beating another rapper in a battle; would that make him the unquestioned best of all time? Simply put: no.

I think his latest song, “Show Me What You Got,” is ok; definitely not up to Jay-Z’s usual lyrical standards. Even if the song (along with the accompanying album) had been great, it would not place him any higher on the “G.O.A.T” standings. Since I consider Jay-Z to be an intelligent man, I will assume that he took a lesson from Michael Jordan, and therefore came back not because he felt that he had more room to improve his standing, but because he simply misses the game. That is the only reason worth coming back for.


Brother Smartness said...

The Jay-Z:MJ analogy is somewhat problematic because the team was never simultaneously owned and played for by MJ. Let’s imagine for a second that MJ did in fact own the team while playing for it. Furthermore, rather than likening Hov’s retirement to MJ’s return to the Wizards, we should probably liken it to MJ’s return to the bulls (when he wore #45). This is a more apt comparison because MJ was very much still in his prime. To compare Jay-Z to a less agile and less dominant MJ is to suggest that Hov has lost something that was essential to the game. Hov still has his delivery, diction, and content intact (essentials of the rap game) and I anticipate his next album will not disappoint.

Moving along with MJ analogy…Why would you sit on the bench as a star player on an all star team? Especially when the fans want to see you play. My point is that everyone on the DefJam team has to play their position. Nas is a great point guard but he’s not going to bring the rock up the court when the score is low. Hov will handle the rock and make the necessary baskets. And when the time is right he'll kick it to Steve Kerr (Nas) for the open three.

Brother Spotless said...

I admit the MJ-Hov comparison isn't perfect, but I think you missed my point.

Even if MJ had not lost a step at 40, and had won another NBA championship and scoring title, the legend of MJ would not have grown. On a similar note, when MJ came back wearing the 4-5, his legend still had room to grow. While everyone knew that he was great before retirement #1, it was attributed more to his athletic abilities than anything else. The 4-5 comeback proved that he could do it without jumping over everyone. There was nothing more to prove after retirement #2; it was purely his wanting to get back in the game that led to the Wizards comeback. Similarly, I don't see what Jay-Z has to prove, which leads me to believe him when he says he's back because he missed being in the game.

Think about it through this lens: the Bill Gates fortune is around $67 billion. People who haven't approached attaining a fortune of that magnitude can't comprehend what $67 billion actually looks like. They know it's more than $50 billion, but outside of that general understanding nothing more can be mined from such a large number.

I view the greatness of MJ and Jay-Z in similar ways. Another championship for Jordan would give him 7, which to most would simply be one more than six. His legend would not grow. Same for Jay-Z; another platinum record wouldn't raise his stature.

I guess I am saying that Jay-Z, while he may not have reached his full potential as an artist, has reached his full legendary potential (meaning, Hov won't become greater in the minds of the audience, no matter how much he improves on his craft).

Smartness, as I read your response, specifically your "Moving along with MJ analogy…" paragraph, I think we agree...mostly. While I certainly was not talking about the team aspect of either Def Jam Records or the Chicago Bulls (I know that you understand that), MJ and Hov both seem to be coming back for the only reason that makes sense: the love of the game. That sounds very utopian. However, when you have two of the greats in their respective crafts, you understand that they can be utopian.

Brother Smartness said...

I find it interesting that you would see it that way. Only because I had the exact same conversation with Lightness last Friday in which he expressed the same sentiment about Hov’s inability to add to his legacy at this point in his life. With age comes perspective. The older he gets, the more he experiences. My hope is that he’ll become even wiser and pass that knowledge (of life, love, and pain) in his music to our youth. In short, I believe that there is room for growth and transformation, regardless of how dominant they may be or appear to be.

Brother Spotless said...

Well, if Hov can prove me wrong in the ways you've suggested, ("My hope is that he’ll become even wiser and pass that knowledge (of life, love, and pain) in his music to our youth."), I will welcome it with open arms...

Brother Afrocan said...

Let me throw a bit of haterade to cool some this burning Jay-Z lovefest. To hear Brother Smartness talk about Jay-Z, you would think he is the second coming of Jesus Christ. "Hov still has his delivery, diction, and content intact (essentials of the rap game) and I anticipate his next album will not disappoint." I would advise Smartness to take a listen to the leaked copies of the Jay's new single, “Show Me What You Got,”. Calling it a letdown is an understatement.

Though I think Jay is one of the top 5 greatest rappers ever. The best basketball analogy to tie around Jay is that of Hakeem Olajuwon, the man who benefited the most from MJ's retirement. You can be sure that had MJ not gone on his baseball adventure, Hakeem and the rest of the Rockets would have had the barest of ring fingers. Similarly Jay benefited from the void of talent in hip hop created by the deaths of Pac and BIG. One can comfortably say had BIG still been alive, Jay's career would have peaked as the Spliff Star to BIG's Busta.

That said if you want to look at the MJ in Jay Z. Jordan’s return to the Wizards is the best analogy, we all know how that ended, with MJ being told that he was no longer wanted around the Wizards. MJ’s hubris lay in the fact that he tried to juggle the role of GM and that of player and was surprised when nearly the entire Wizards roster objected to having MJ return as GM because they feared he would use the position to retaliate and settle any old scores with teammates. Likewise a couple of Def Jam artists including LL Cool J and Black Thought from the Roots have already began complaining about Jay putting his music career ahead of those he is supposed to manage. Look no further than Jay pushing Nas’ album back to make room for his own project Kingdom Come. Even if that was the best decision business-wise it still looks shady and selfish. It sends a bad sign to the other artists on Def Jam that Jay is looking out for his own interests over those of his artists. I would not be surprised is Jay is soon fired like MJ was in Washington as other artists become disgruntled by the kind of promotion he puts out for his own albums (more than he does other artists on Def Jam) the kind of dollars he spends on his own projects and the priority he places on them. This is prospect is becoming increasingly likely given the poor performance of Def Jam’s artists so far this year.

Brother Spotless said...

Jay-Z, the Hakeem of Rap? Nah, I can't go with you there Brother Afrocan. Olajuwon was never considered a top 3 or 5 talent. He's not even considered a top 3 center (Wilt, Jabaar, Shaq, and possibly Moses Malone would rank higher).

Let me say this about Pac: he was far more important to hip hop than he was to rap. I mean this to say that the emotion and meaning of his words were powerful, perhaps more powerful than any other rapper ever. But his lyrical capabilities were not on the level of BIG, Jay-Z or Rakim. If you are saying that Pac's presence as a cultural icon loomed larger than that of Jay-Z, I would agree. But culture is what you live and forms how you see yourself. Rapping is something that you do; an artform within the context of the hip hop culture.

Malcolm X could not sing, but had a larger presence within the black culture than the that of the Temptations.

Brother Smartness said...

Comparing Hov’s greatness to Hakeem is like comparing a child sitting backstage on the Maury Povich show to a man who just got his paternity test back, i.e. NO RELATION.

LL can’t even go gold. The Roots’ fan base won’t allow them to reach the success they envision even though their music is amazing.

For the last three summers we’ve seen the ascendancy of the South coincide with the retirement of Hov. I think I speak for all us when I say that we waited in high anticipation for “the One”; anyone to do what Hov, Pac, and BIG were all able to do. As we searched, Hov’s collaborations, save for one or two songs, were highly anticipated and universally embraced. “I’m in the air I don’t hear n---- corny raps…” Nine out of ten of you can complete that verse because it was fire. Two songs leaked off the new album, one of which has grown on me. (Should you see you me out tonight, I’ll probably greet you with my Hova speedboat wave). In any event Afrocan, it’s too early to tell and I can’t believe your presupposition is based on those two leaked tracks.

Again I return to the analogy of MJ’s first retirement. Even then, there were those of us who wanted him to stay out of the game. He returned triumphantly, however, in spite of our worst wishes.

The evidence of Hov’s ability to stay relevant is in his most recent collaborations and guest appearances. If Hov was rocking throwbacks and fitted caps, that might be a problem. But he wants a “crisp pair of jeans…(and a) button up." Hip-hop needs this man more than you gentlemen might believe.

Brother Afrocan said...

"LL can’t even go gold. The Roots’ fan base won’t allow them to reach the success they envision even though their music is amazing."

Even if the aforementioned factors are true Smartness and as I said even if it is the best business decision, lets be honest it looks bad for the CEO to promote his album more than he does other artists. The kind of promotion he is pumping into Kingdom Come was not available to other artists. Maybe Jay knew guys like LL would drop a dud with or without the extra promotion, but as an artist would you rather have a guy that would push your album back in favor of his or a guy like Dre that would push his project Detox back in order to work with other artists on his label? Mark my words, Jay's return may be good for his label's bottom line in the short term but the rumblings on Def Jam will only get louder, plus from the leaked songs, I am yet to be convinced that Jay is not totally bored with the rap game and just spitting verses to sell records

Brother Spotless said...

Afrocan, while what you say might in fact be true, you are bringing in factors that are not germane to the discussion. The business sense of releasing his album ahead of Nas or not putting money into the Roots project is not at question. Does his legend still have room to grow? Is he a top 3 rapper? Basically, what's at issue are his rapping abilities, not his business IQ.

Smartness, I am not questioning J's ability to remain relevant; he has only been retired for 3 years, and he is the President of Def Jam Records. I question whether there is room for his legend to grow. IF (and this is a huge, monumental if), J can somehow save rap (and by save I mean completely change the current path of rap), that may indeed improve on his legend. You seem to be suggesting that he has that ability; I am not sure any single rapper has that ability.

I disagree with you Smartness in your assumption that "the last three summers we’ve seen the ascendancy of the South coincide with the retirement of Hov." The ascendancy of the South began some time before J retired (and I am not talking about the entire South, just the collective group of rappers who have managed to strip the music of everyone outside of the Dungeon Family). One can look at the rise of Nelly as an example of said ascendancy. For J to change rap's course, he'd have to somehow lead the charge to make intelligence in rap important once again (hmm, maybe it was a mistake for J to ignore the Roots project...). I don't know if it is possible for one artist to do that, even one as great as J. However, I now see that there is something he could do to raise the bar even further, although that would also require him changing the course of the culture as well.

Brother Darkness said...

Such a heated debate that I am sorry for being tardy to the party. Nevertheless I have read what each of the three of you have said and there are some very interesting points that have been put on the table. Such as J not being able to add to his legend. I somewhat disagree because there is a new challenge to be conquered. Although he's been "retired" for 3 years, he has been a guest on numerous tracks but when has there ever been an artist who retires and then comes back 3 years later and goes platinum? J has that to prove and although I believe him when he says he missed the game I do believe there is a bit of selfish pride to prove that he hasn't lost "it" and he wants to show everyone that he can take 3 years off, come back and put out a good album (at least better than Vol. 3 S. Carter).

As far as the analogy goes, I found it hard to like Hov to The Dream. And although there was no MJ on the Bulls those two years, it is not fair to say that the Houston Rockets did not deserve the championships that they won. The Dream and the Rockets had great teams and I know that the Bulls, with Jordan, could NOT guard the center position. Hakeem would give them the business and that series would go 7 games.

If B.I.G. was alive he's be on just about every Jay-Z album and vice versa and I think it would add to both of their careers. I'm not taking anything away from B.I.G. because he was a great artists but he doesn't have what Jay-Z has and that's charisma. Hov has been a trend setter and many artists are trying their best to imitate him without being blatant about it. Jay-Z is an icon. He is known worldwide. Even people here in China that speak little English know who he is.

Now, whatever J is doing behind the doors of Def Jam should be left there. I'm sure Nas isn't complaining too much about his album because he'll make more money off of this album than any of his others. As for LL, he's been complaining about Def Jam for the last 5+ years and has been threatening to leave. He is a premadonna. From the sound of "Game Theory" I'm not sure if J dealt that much with the Roots album because it isn't washed down commercial tracks that were in "The Tipping Point."

I'm sure there are steps that J has taken that we may think aren't good for business but I ask you to look at how Master P dealt with No Limit Records. They put out albums like every other month but Master P's album sold the most because he was always on TV or the radio promoting his album. He promoted his other artists but he was pushing his album the most. He'd sell records, get paid and they got paid. We must remember that although we consider hip hop and rap to be an art form, it is still a business and if J is getting paid millions his artists are getting paid and so are the people at Def Jam. He may have to push back a couple of albums but in the end, people are getting paid and for some artists thats what its all about.

As for the ever popularity of the South, I do agree that they have came back to the forefront since the self-destruction of Cash Money Records. From 1998 to about 2000 the South had the industry on lock with Cash Money and No Limit jockeying for supremacy in the south. But from 2000 and on its been about the midwest and the east coast (we're still waiting for a west coast ressurrection). But I do agree that the South has came back to the forefront, led by Lil Jon, since J's retirement. Their sound is different from the "bling, bling" era and it has given listeners a different perspective of rap.

In conclusion, I don't think J can singlehandedly save hip hop. At this point it will take one hell of an album to do that. Imagine, an album better than both "Reasonable Doubt" and "Blueprint." Now that's wishful thinking....