Evolution in Songs: Jay-Z

Evolution in Songs: Jay-Z


Shawn Carter was born December 4th, weighing in at 10 pounds 8 ounces...

The hip hop mogul better know as Jay-Z turns the big 5-0 today. Having gone from Marcy to Madison Square (and beyond), there isn't a whole lot to say about the man that hasn't been said a hundred times already. 

Without a doubt one of the greatest to ever do it, Jay has played an integral part in taking rap from the corner to the centre of popular culture.

Like any artist with a career spanning over two decades, his sound has matured over the years, so to mark his special day, we thought it'd be fun to delve into his back catalogue and showcase just how he has evolved as an artist. 


The Originators - 1990


When Jay-Z first started taking rap seriously he found himself a mentor in Jaz-O aka The Originator. Technical skills were the name of the game for a young Jay-Z, proving himself through high speed, high difficulty rhyming. 


Dead Presidents - 1996


The myth is that upon hearing Nas' epochal Illmatic Jay decided to slow down his flow and focus more on what he was saying as opposed to how he was saying it. Whether that's true or not, this Nas sampling track has a pensive, reflective vibe and was the lead single for his debut album, Reasonable Doubt.


Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem) - 1998


Hova might have better songs, but this Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life single is a turning point not only for his career, but for rap as a whole. Depicting themes of ghetto struggle over a show tune sample from Annie, Jay was able to crack into the mainstream market while maintaining street cred, paving the way for a generation of hip hop artists.


Heart of The City (Ain't No Love) - 2001


Could have gone with Izzo (H.O.V.A) here, but this Bobby "Blue" Bland sampling track better showcases the more artistic direction Jay-Z started taking things in on his seminal album Blueprint. Teaming up with a young producer out of Chicago by the name of Kanye West on five of the album's 15 tracks, Jay became influenced by arts outside the normal hip hop lexicon, using sounds and samples never heard in rap before.


99 Problems - 2003


This Black Album single encapsulates Jay-Z as an artist. On the one hand the track's hook (a reworking of Ice-T's track of the same name) and lyrical storytelling look back and allude to a time before hip hop held the vaunted position it does now. On the other, the song's mashup of rap and rock (produced by Def Jam co-founder and living legend Rick Rubin) distinctly looked forward and spawned a whole genre of imitators for years to come. 


Show Me What You Got - 2006


The birth of Jay 2.0, this was the first single off his comeback album Kingdom Come. Returning to the booth more as a godfather than an active player, this is Jay-Z at his most luxurious, with nothing to prove to anyone. 

 


Empire State of Mind - 2009 


His only number one single as a leading artist, this instant classic finds Jay weaving his life's story into the fabric of the city that birthed him. The modern ode to New York City, the track shows Jay-Z's unparalleled ability to zoom out, weave together different narratives and concisely paint a vivid picture.


No Church In The Wild - 2011


The first song off Watch the Throne, his collaborative album with Kanye West, sleek production heavy on the dark synths, cinematic grandiosity and even a little auto-tune mark the beginning of Jay's art rap period.


4:44 - 2017


Hey, did you hear Jay-Z cheated on Beyoncé? 2014's infamous elevator fight changed the trajectory of Jay-Z's career, placing the narrative of infidelity on top of everything he touched. After his wife's confessional album Lemonade, Jay followed suit. The album's title track focusses directly on his transgressions and brings everything back to a classic soul feel.

The entire album is about breaking the facade of the toxic celebrity personally he constructed over his entire career and replacing it with a more authentic representation of himself as Shawn Carter, a real person. 


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