This is part of The Shadow League's Black Music Month In Focus series celebrating the vibrating musical excellence within our wide cultural tapestry.
Who knew the man with two prominent Brooklyn subway train lines as a moniker would become one of the greatest lyricists ever? Certainly not me, but I can remember going to block parties in Harlem in the mid '90s and being enraptured by the single “Ain't No N*****” featuring Foxy Brown.
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The staggering bass line was an all '70s blaxploitation fantastic sampling of "Seven Minutes of Funk" by the funk band The Whole Darn Family, with a rough yet sexy NYC female MC's vocals paired with JAY-Z’s nonchalance. I was in heaven, and after first hearing his debut single “Dead Presidents” from the now-classic debut album, Reasonable Doubt, I was intrigued to say the least.
Still The Notorious B.IG. and Nas had me and the entire New York City collective in a trance. Never would I have imagined that this new voice from Brooklyn would soon come to define the soundtrack of stages in my life and millions of others.
“Can't Knock The Hustle” and “Feelin It” made me feel like a ghetto sophisticate that understood value but wished to merely experience luxury at least once. I totally understood the Nicky Barnes and Rich Porter drug eras of Harlem, and NYC as a whole has always been the definitive hustler’s proving ground. If you can make it in the most treacherous game there, you indeed could make it anywhere. JAY-Z always stood out as the one who didn't get caught and lived to tell the tale.
MY anz jay-z back in the days
This untouchable, enigmatic ethos is similar in boxing to Al Haymon, who although a Harvard-educated entertainment impresario, is shrouded in mystery. We only understand his genius one shrewd business move at a time. And Shawn Carter is no different. However, through JAY-Z, we have received glimpses of where his head is at throughout the years via musical blueprints to his views on life.
When his second album, In My Lifetime vol. 1, came out, he confused me. Songs like “Who You Wit” made sense to the bravado borderline misogynist message I was used to hearing from him. But songs like “(Always Be My) Sunshine”, featuring Babyface, and anything created with the producer then labeled Puff Daddy, felt like a shtick to become more popular.
But he didn't need those type of syrupy records to be popular. His flavor came from being counter to the Shiny Suit era.
Music video by Jay-Z performing Sunshine (Always Be My). Off the album In My Lifetime Vol. 1. © 1997 Roc-A-Fella
JAY normalized the attitude of the street hustler. He understood that everyone is struggling and anxious to get to that next rung in life, and that anxiety will give you an over the top ego. It is as much offense as it is defense, but the normalcy of being brazen in the face of law enforcement, stick up kids and set up girls is his early legacy.
He entered you into the conversation between two street hustlers shopping in Bergdorf Goodman’s on 5th Avenue daily. It was oxymoronic rap normality drenched in criminal code and tied with a blue ribbon from Tiffany’s. And it was glorious.
I'm sure his mental pathology realized what needed to be done, and he rebounded astoundingly on Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life.
No one will ever forget how he transformed the theme song of little orphan Annie into a veritable show tune for street culture. “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” was true to its namesake and was heard blasting through Every Hood, USA when it came out.
Classics like “Money, Cash, Hoes” and “Can I Get A…” launched the careers of DMX, Ja Rule and briefly Amil. JAY created anthems that rang out from the impoverished streets to the swank nightclubs of Las Vegas. Every bar was carefully worded and timed, giving you just enough while still clamoring for more of the enigmatic MC.
JAY-Z ANTHEM HARD KNOCK LIFE (GHETTO ANTHEM) FROM VOL.2 HARD KNOCK LIFE
When he delved into Philadelphia’s grimiest neighborhoods of North and South Philly to find the crew that would comprise State Property, he truly rounded out the legacy of his label, Rocafella Records. Not since Schoolly D had The City of Brotherly Love been exposed on such a grand scale and the team never disappointed. From Beanie Siegel to Peedi Crakk and Freeway, Jay-Z knew how to find raw, ethereal street scribes and illuminate the problems they faced.
Later he would make stars of Kanye West and bigger stars of Cam’ron and his Diplomats crew. Producers like Just Blaze and a Swizz Beats are now household names from their work with JAY-Z, and the notion of the art-to-artist collaboration rap album started with The Best of Both World’s album with R. Kelly.
JAY-Z' '4:44' Sprint.TIDAL.com #TIDALXSprint
Today, Jigga released his 13th solo album, 4:44, which is being lauded as his most personal to date.
Now a family man with three kids, a world-famous wife in Beyoncé and enough businesses to keep many people out of poverty, JAY-Z has introduced us to the real Shawn Carter. Now that he is here, we can get to know him for many more years and experience the life and times of a former hustler that made it safely to the other side.