Old vs New is a column for Musical Chairs writers to describe the growth of artists who have changed over time, for better or worse.
For a career as decorated as Jay-Z’s, it hardly matters how long it took him to hit it big; he has more than enough to make up for it now. He’s won 17 Grammy awards, and has been nominated 51 times. On top of his unbelievable music career, Jay-Z has made a name for himself all around the world with several other business ventures such as co-founding Rocawear clothing and NYC’s 40/40 Club. The Brooklyn MC went from rhyming about basketball stars on 2003’s “Pump it Up (Remix) (“I’m the Mike Jordan of mic recordin'”) to bringing the basketball stars to his hometown in 2013, unveiling the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, whom he is a part owner of. The man even married Beyonce Knowles.
If you look at the two current book-ends of Jay-Z’s career, and I say current because I don’t believe he’s going away soon, you can see two pretty different Hovs. Go back to ’98 when Jay-Z released Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life along with the title track single. Just last night, in my dorm at the University of Kentucky, Jay-Z was playing when someone claimed that you have to start with “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Life)” if you’re going to listen to him. It had been so long since I heard it that it seemed wildly different to me; I couldn’t remember Jay-Z sounding like this. On “Hard Knock Life”, Hov is rhyming with such a fluid flow that I could honestly see the influence when he shouted out the the memory of Biggie, “baby!”
The thing that has stayed consistent in Jay-Z’s career is his confident lyricism. Jay-Z never seemed to doubt that he would reach this point, spitting like a prophet on “Hard Knock Life”: I went from lukewarm to hot; sleeping on futons and cots To King size, dream machines.
These days, Jay-Z is riding a much different wave. A true mogul, Jay-Z spends more time tackling projects that are larger than life. In 2011, he fooled around with the other most confident rapper in the world, Kanye West, and released Watch the Throne. The modest, simple Hov albums are a thing of the past but the new only reflect his growing personality and estate. On Throne‘s “No Church in the Wild”, it’s evident that Jay-Z is no longer interested in rapping about things like day-to-day living in Brooklyn. In “No Church for the Wild”, Jay-Z is tackling existential concepts, painting pictures of the deranged modern life of glamour, rhyming: Lies on the lips of a priest / Thanksgiving disguised as a feast and Cocaine seats, all white like I got the whole thing bleached / Drug dealer chic, I’m wondering if a thug’s prayers reach. Jay-Z may be among the Caesars of pop culture, but he hasn’t lost his thoughtfulness; Hov knows falling isn’t out of reach.
I see nothing wrong with the progression of Jay-Z, in fact I think his new lush approach to music is a testament to his talent, recreating an image and succeeding regardless. Looking at these two bookends, and everything in between, makes me appreciate Jay-Z even more than I did previously. For those of you who have lived under a rock for 15+ years, do yourself a favor and indulge yourself in the career of Jay-Z, from start to finish.