True hip-hop heads may spot the irony in Jay Z receiving a songwriter’s accolade, considering some of his most seminal work was never written down prior to recording. Like some of his contemporaries, the rap legend was known for stepping inside the studio booth and firing off whatever was on his mind. The difference between Jay Z and the rest, however, was what became of the product. Here is an artist who thus far has kept us hot for 20 summers through new releases and revisited classics. His music — which early on straddled the line between drug rap and opulence — has evolved and made its way into the mainstream frame of reference. He released an entire book dissecting the intricate parts of his lyrics. There is no other hip-hop artist more qualified to take this historical leap as the first rapper inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
It’s sometimes easy to forget Shawn Carter’s artistry. Over the last four years, much of his brand has centered on his personal life and his business. When you see photos of Jay Z, he’s either with his family or in a business suit — his recent announcement of launching his own venture capital firm is a testament to the latter. When it’s music-related, it’s often with a pageant wave, ushering in the next-gen member of the Roc or a new Tidal alliance. The most recent pic of Jay near a microphone was in a makeshift studio with DJ Khaled, presumably for the recording of “Shining,” and even there he’s in a partial suit.
There are random pop-ins on other peoples’ songs, as few and far between as an Andre 3000 cameo. Albums are a whole other conversation. Kanye West did all but set fire to the idea that there would ever be a Watch The Throne sequel. Some were waiting with bated breath for a husband response to Beyoncé’s Lemonade, but judging by the Carters’ recent announcement that they’d be dropping a joint effort of twin babies, the likelihood of revisiting the aforementioned seems unlikely.
But defining Jay Z’s legacy with a short-term memory would be denying the importance of his legacy. His last work was 2013’s Magna Carta Holy Grail, which housed a collection of songs whose hooks — like most of Jay Z’s classics — have become pillars of pop culture lingo. Think “I don’t pop Molly/I rock Tom Ford” off “Tom Ford” or “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt,” as both a song and a hashtag. And that’s really what Jay Z’s songwriting has done for popular music; it’s created songs that have evolved into something much bigger. “H.A.M.” will forever stand for “Hard As a Muthafucka” now. In a world full of “99 Problems,” you already know what won’t make the hundredth, and the most polite way to approach a woman is still via “Excuse Me Miss.”
On a hip-hop level, many will toss other names into the ether like Eminem or Nas as more suitable rap honorees for the Songwriters Hall of Fame. However, there is a huge contrast between being lyrical and writing great songs. While Nas and Eminem both at some point could and should deserve that honor, with Jay Z it’s a game of numbers and consistent hits that have penetrated on a broader level; “Big Pimpin,” “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem),” and “Empire State of Mind” being a few.
When delving into the deeper cuts, here is an artist who detailed inner turmoil early on with “D’Evils,” highlighted insular competitiveness in “Coming of Age” and “Coming of Age (Da Sequel),” predicted the birth of his own daughter in “Beach Chair,” and postured himself in both misogyny and hypocrisy with “Bitches & Sisters.” Lyrically speaking, Jay Z is known as the “monster of the double entendre.” His 2010 New York Times Bestseller Decoded was equal parts masterpiece and necessity as so much of Jay Z’s music is rooted in underlying complexities. His presence as a guest feature on songs made careers and rebirthed them. Foxy Brown and Lil’ Kim both benefited from Jay Z verses at the starts of their careers, as did Rihanna on “Umbrella” and Justin Timberlake on “Suit & Tie” when the last two were searching for reinvention.
This year, the other 2017 Songwriters Hall of Fame inductees include Babyface, Max Martin, Berry Gordy, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis and Chicago. All have either composed their own music, which shape-shifted their respective genres, or created songs for other people that were career-changing. In Jay Z’s case he’s done both. As an artist he’s created songs that stand the test of time; as a rapper he’s made hip-hop palpable to both novice and purist ears. At this point we don’t know Jay Z’s plans for future recordings, much like the rest of the inductees. What we do know is his mere presence in the roster will set a whole new standard for inductees going forward.
By Kathy Iandoli
Courtesy of Billboard