It’s 1996 and rap is at an all-time high. 2Pac is the biggest hip-hop artist in the world and he’s leading a crusade to crush the biggest record label on the east coast and anyone who considers them friends. Bad Boy Records and its flagship artist, Notorious B.I.G. (who was once a friend to 2Pac), was who he pointed the finger at for his attempted murder and armed robbery at Quad Studios the year prior. Although he would blame someone else for the failed attempt on his life (Promised a payback Jimmy Henchman…), his most poignant jabs were aimed at a better known foe and his counterparts. At this point, a relatively unknown Jay Z had struck gold (or platinum) with the song, “Ain’t No Nigga” ft. Foxy Bown from the soundtrack to one of the summers biggest films, The Nutty Professor. He would also release a classic of a debut album, Reasonable Doubt, which featured the Notorious B.I.G. on the song “Brooklyn’s Finest”. So, when 2Pac took aim at the rising star, it was more than a afterthought.
A year later… Both 2pac and Notorious B.I.G. are dead and the south is primed for a takeover. Master P has positioned himself to be the first rapper/entrepreneur to completely capitalize off of the independence of the branding and marketing side of music. Jay Z’s not the biggest artist in the game and his second album was released to a luke-warm response. It looks like Nas is going to be the heir to the King of New York crown and Jay doesn’t seem to mind the competition (Who’s the best emcee, Biggy, Jay Z or Nas?). What is a man to do? In comes Streets is Watching, a hip-hopera of some sorts and a great way to get the streets back after a failed attempt at over commercialized street music with In My Lifetime Vol. 1. There were a couple gyms like “You Must Love Me”, “Where I’m From” and “Imaginary Players”, but overall, the album was a little disappointing.
In comes the sample of a lifetime and an album that would place Jay Z atop the hip-hop food chain. By 1998, Puffy and Master P were the heavyweights and it appeared that hip-hop was turning a little more pop. The clothes had gotten brighter. The sound had gotten lighter. The vibe a little different. When you first heard the Annie sample, you understood it was something a little different. The verses in between the sample were just protocol. One of the biggest songs of the year would also be featured on the soundtrack to one of the biggest movies of the year, Rush Hour. “Can I Get A…” was said to be a Ja Rule song first, but by the time it was released, Ja Rule as a feature as well as an unknown A.M.I.L., who gave the ladies something to chant. The two singles helped Vol. 2 Hard Knock LIfe sell over five million copies.
At this point, Jay Z became more than a rap artist/CEO. Roc-A-Wear quickly became one of the biggest selling urban wear brands on the market. Everything he touched was gold and him mentioning something could increase its sells. By the time Vol. 3… LIfe and Times of S. Carter was released in 1999, Jay Z had become “Jay Hov”. The album would sell upwards of three million copies with the help of “Big Pimpin'”. 2000’s The Dynasty was more of the same. 2001’s Blueprint would become one of the most critically successful hip-hop albums ever. The Blueprint 2, however… well, it wasn’t it’s predecessor, but it still spawned somebody dope music and sold well. The Black Album, which was to be his swan song of a retirement album was also well-received from fans and critics.
Since his retirement from rap in 2004, Jay has been president of Def Jam, which came with mixed reviews. He became a minority owner of the New Jersey Nets and moved them to his hometown of Brooklyn. He’s came back to release several albums, including American Gangster, which was a dope black exploitation film in music. His lates release wasn’t talked about as much for the music as it was discussed for the fact that he sold a million copies to Samsung, insuring platinum status, even before it was available to consumers, once again proving his business prowess.
He was the first rapper to make a hundred-million dollar plus deal with concert promoter Live Nation. These deals weren’t uncommon amongst pop acts like Whitney Houston or Brittney Spears, but the Roc Nation deal was unprecedentedly high for a hip-hop act. Jay has since signed other artists under his management deal. Roc Nation has also expanded to sports management and other ventures.
As we celebrate his 47th birthday, we have to accept that he has become synonymous with “Hip-Hop”. Since 1996 he has given us a time stamp with hi sir music releases. Rather we celebrate his lyrical ability or not is personal opinion. What is fact is that a Jay Z release is still as important, if not more important, than it was 20 years ago when he released Reasonable Doubt. This is not to say that there aren’t other rappers who’ve been around since 1996 or before, but no one has shaped or shifted the culture like Shawn Carter. The same goes for Michael Jordan. He hasn’t stepped on a basketball court in almost 15 years, but his shoes are still in high demand, even if they’re being released over and over again. Of course people argue about who’s the greatest player ever, but no one can argue about his impact on the game of basketball.
Happy Birthday to The Michael Jordan of Rap, Shawn Carter aka Jay Z