Amazing conversations arise around elevators. Work, and the week, had come to an end when I walked to the office floor lobby with another intern several Fridays ago; incredulous, I listened as she told me how she felt about one Shawn Carter—not a big fan. While I’ll rarely spend more than a few minutes arguing about Jay Z, that late afternoon was an exception; we spent an hour and some change debating the career highlights and pitfalls of the God Emcee. Besides, we were, and are, in New York City. It’s only right, right?
Several conjoined ramblings addressing Beyonce, Reasonable Doubt and the Illuminati later, we entered new territory. Post-Kingdom Come territory. Riches-over-raps territory. Have you ever heard someone distinguish Jay’s comeback effort, labeling it a quality project? I certainly haven’t, though “Lost One” remains one of my favorite records to this day. Anyway, Hov has released four full lengths since reentering the rap game, and at least half of these albums are hardly impressive. 2009 saw The Blueprint trilogy’s conclusive chapter succeed solely off of its parts, which greatly exceeded their sum. Sure, undeniable smash songs kept Jigga relevant, but The Blueprint 3 is wholly hollow. We took turns listing its memorable moments—Big Apple anthem “Empire State of Mind,” J. Cole’s crowning moment on “A Star Is Born,” Kanye’s “Run This Town” verse—before turning our attention to its undesirable qualities: the Drake-assisted “Off That” is one of the worst songs in the Brooklyn emcee’s entire catalog.
We both ultimately alternated away from BP3 with a reluctant respect; it’s wack, but not without songs that can shut a party down. Magna Carta… Holy Grail graced our conversation next, acting as a BP3 deluxe (or lite, depending on your perspective) chasing contemporary trends and faring decently in the process. Production is richer—the overtly corporatized commercial showing some of rap’s beat smith luminaries in the same studio still serves as a special scene—though Jay’s lyrical offerings fall flat more often than not. Brought about by a monetary opportunity rather than artistic inspiration, the thin layer of big business gleam glossing the music can’t be shaken.
My fellow intern had just finished praising “Picasso Baby” when a pair of staff members meandered into the lobby, likely wondering what the hell we were debating over. After considering my own opinions during a minute of silence split among four people, I jumped back into the fray and blurted, “______ is Jay’s best album since The Black Album, no comparison.” One of the supervisors stepped away from his own world to enter ours, simply stating, “You’re right.”
I’m not sure if I’m right. The unexpected cosign took me by surprise, and ironically made me second guess myself. American Gangster or Jay’s royal record with Kanye West, Watch The Throne—which of the two is truly his best? How do we really measure the best? Where metrics fail, the perceivable meaning behind music succeeds. Jay once rapped on “Moment of Clarity,” “If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be, lyrically Talib Kweli/Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense/But I did 5 mill’—I ain’t been rhyming like Common since.” Truth be told, Jay Z did rhyme in the vein of Kweli and Common—arguably a lot better, actually—on one prodigious project post-Kingdom Come.