There was a time when, if you asked me who my favorite rapper was, I’d say unequivocally that it was Shawn “Jay Z” Carter — the mid-nineties to be exact (bring on the old man jokes). He was the first rapper whose bars I memorized line-for-line, that would’ve been his verses on Changing Faces’ “All Of My Days” from the Space Jam soundtrack. How could you not love: “Keep the ice out the club lights — change face / Get ‘I love wifey’ on the license plates / Wait — make me think about you even when you’re not around / Use the bathroom, put the toilet seat back down?”
He seemed out of reach, yet down to earth; he wasn’t super rugged and thuggish, like Tupac and his eventual spin-offs Ja Rule and DMX, but he also wasn’t a heartthrob, lip-licking muscleman like LL Cool J. Even at his flashiest, he wasn’t a shiny-suit wearing, Gucci-down-to-the-socks, elaborately-styled like those in Bad Boy’s stable. (Even when he tried to be, he could never really pull it off — see: the infamous “Sunshine” music video.) And he definitely wasn’t a costumed hippie like Native Tongues, who I best related to in content, if not in character. Jay was just a regular guy with money and a little charisma. He looked like someone I’d see walking down the street on my block, in his baggy jeans, fresh sneakers and throwback jersey. Everything was understated, but that flow. My goodness, that flow. Jigga would twist and contort and juggle vowels like the ridiculous nunchuck-spinning scene in the first Ninja Turtles movie, and as a word nerd, I loved every multi-syllabic second.
Then I got older, and Jay got older, and he apparently got bored with rapping, and as he got more bored with rap, I got more bored with hearing him rap. Nowadays, a Jay Z feature on a popular rapper’s newest single — once a cause for immediate headphone-hunting and rewind-button-finger spraining — barely elicits a grunt and a shrug from even the most avid rap fan. And while he’s delivered more than few decent quotables on recent appearances, on the whole, a Jay verse in 2017 is about as humdrum an occurrence as one can imagine in the increasingly colorful world of hip-hop.
What the hell happened?
Well, for one thing, Jay Z got married. That’s a thing that will shift a man’s priorities in a hurry. However, if that wasn’t enough to settle him down — if you believe Lemonade is based on a true story anyway — now he’s a father, and as pretty much anyone with kids will tell you, having kids will upend everything you think is important. For Jay, being the best rapper alive just isn’t all that important anymore. And as a listener, I wonder if I’d be disappointed if it were — after all, I’ve got my own responsibilities, bills, and relationship drama to sort through. Jay, for all his art talk, and fashion-forward name-dropping, still strikes me as just a regular guy.