Jay-Z is the MVP of Hip Hop. Most talks of greatness within the genre tend to revolve around who is the GOAT. However on this day, in celebration of his birthday, I’d like to acknowledge just how much the man helped shape what is now the most dominant genre of music at this bend of the decade. And it wouldn’t be what it is without the very deliberate moves he made and continues to make. Next year he will be 50 years old, 30 years removed from his debut verse, and this year he somehow managed to best himself with one of the greatest verses of his career; a career that seems to never quit as he traverses further along territory that was uncharted miles ago.
Capping the year off with a guest verse on Meek Mill’s “What’s Free?” finds Jay-Z in a different place than he began, though it is born from his first mission statement. There was a point in time when Hip Hop became stigmatized for its materialism and flaunting of riches. In 2018 Jay-Z is the embodiment of where that point in time led to. Some people find it ironic that the last couple of years Jay started to take on the characteristics of a so-called concious rapper. This was the man that unabashedly rapped “truthfully I want to rhyme like Common Sense, but I did five mil, I ain’t been rhyming like Common since,” detailing how he specifically chose not to rap with the depth of an artist like Common in order to sell more records. This was Mr. Big Pimpin’, christal and designer clothes on yachts, Mr. “I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars,” and now all of a sudden his tune seems to have changed. It might seem weird that this billionaire all of a sudden morphed into a hippie, complete with the look to boot. It’s weird until you realize that all this time Jay was stacking up toward freedom.
He’s in the middle of beating the game.
“Three-fifths of a man, I believe’s the phrase,” he begins his What’s Free? verse, making clear the historic notion of Black worth in America. In the era of Black Lives Matter, a statement made to emphasize our value and combat a culture informed by that history of slavery, Jay goes on to bullet-point his literal worth which gives him the power and mobility to destroy these institutions. “I’m 50% of D’USSÉ and it’s debt free,” he continues, “100% of Ace of Spades, worth half a B, Roc Nation, half of that, that’s my piece, hunnid percent of TIDAL to bust it up with my G’s.” There was a time when materialism in Hip Hop was stigmatized. The braggadocio was looked down on. The genius of what Jay did was put a focus on ownership. So while Hip Hop got its first taste of big money and rappers started to buy big in well-earned celebration, Jay learned that it is better to keep one’s money in-house and circulating. Why promote another company’s liquor when you can promote your own? Why wear other brand’s in your videos when you can own your own? Why sign to a label when you can make your own and why rely on another streaming service when you can have your own? The list goes on and throughout the years Jay laid out a blueprint of how to work a system he ultimately had the intention of breaking.
He broke it. I’ll never forget a photo I caught from his Made In America festival. Pictured backstage was former president Bill Clinton and rapper Travis Scott having a casual conversation. I don’t know what that means to you, but to me that is so subtly indicative of Jay’s genius. In this decade, those two figures represent exactly the spaces Jay-Z occupies and retains the ability move seamlessly between. Around 15 years ago he made the simple decision to stop wearing throwback jerseys and baggy jeans and start wearing suits. Being as influential as he was at that time, the culture shifted along with him, as did the connotation of what a rapper looks like and what spaces they’re able to travel in. In one move he destroyed a system of associations and expectations. That alone was revolutionary. A simple change of clothes and a tweak in branding sat him next to the Oprah’s and Warren Buffet’s of the world. This series of associations domino effected into what we see today: a genre that is able to comfortably sit next to the highest ranks of American politics or ecomonics and still set foot in the soil, the street, and the culture it came from. I’ve seen Jay-Z pictured with Barack Obama one day and Gucci Mane the next.
Every genre that makes a splash does so in protest to the current state of culture. The Hippie movement was important in times of war. The Punk movement was important in times of conformity and standardization. And if I’m going to be absolutely candid with you, what we’re seeing with Hip Hop is something so much grander in scale and deeper in meaning and impact. The genre’s beginnings was that of the story of Black America, a story born from bondage, struggle, and the fight for freedom and one’s own humanity. It is a story populated by some of the greatest spirits and minds in human history tasked with this puzzle just the same as it is populated by martyrs. And out of that came Hip Hop, a new language and style of revolution and storytelling. What makes Jay-Z in particular so awe-inspiring was the order in which he unfolded this thing. Yes, in 2003 he opted to not rhyme like Common and a sect of the Hip Hop community took offense. What he did do, however, was build real-world power, influence, and ownership to the point where any powers-that-be couldn’t shut him down. The Hippie movement was important in times of war, Punk was important in times of conformity, and in this era of Black Lives Matter it means something to see a Black billionaire grow his nappy hair out. It means something to see a prominent Black man from the hood make albums exploring his feelings, expressing his joys, propping up his wife and children, advocating for unity among the community, and promoting financial freedom. It means something to see a War On Drugs-era Black Man step into the first Black president’s White House. It means something to know that he can’t be bought.
It means something to see a Black man own himself.
Happy birthday to the MVP.