Underrated/Overrated is a new hip-hop column where we examine the legacy of a rapper and try to determine once and for all: Are they overrated or underrated? Today’s candidate: Jay-Z.
Jay-Z Is Overrated
Jay-Z is almost unequivocally considered either the best rapper that ever lived, or at the least one of the ten greatest ever. However, the dirty little secret about all of this reverence is that it’s bought Jay a heap of forgiveness for all his blemishes and mistakes. The high praise he constantly receives makes it easy to forget his lowkey awful collabs — like “Anything” with Usher or “Off That” with Drake. That’s the gift of popularity, the public voice of praise always rings louder than the criticism, and your narrative is shaped by success. But that doesn’t mean those bad songs and mediocre albums don’t exist, it just means we don’t discuss them as much or hold them against him in the same way we do with everybody else.
For Jay, his widespread acclaimed has earned him the benefit of the doubt, and that’s one of the biggest reasons he’s overrated. We rarely talk about is misfires, instead we focus on his classics, his undeniable records and his various business exploits. You know why Vol. 2 and Vol. 3 don’t come up in most Jay-Z conversions? Because they’re not very good. Sure there are bright moments, but for every “So Ghetto” or “Come And Get Me” there’s an “NYMP.”
Yes, Jay-Z sets trends, yes, he continues to goose the industry and sell his music — wholesale — and always turn a profit. But profitability doesn’t mean much on the mic, it just means he’s good in the boardroom, and rappers make their name in the studio, not the boardroom. Jay-Z may have the highest peak of any rapper ever, and his accolades are unmatched, but some of his major commercial success are backed by brands, or era-specific, and at the end of the day, numbers are just numbers, the title of GOAT is about quality of content not how well he promotes or sells that content.
Yes, 4:44 is a fairly great album, and may one day be placed amongst the best Jay albums, but for the latter part of his career, that gives him the same “one hot album every ten years average” he used to spurn Nas for in “Takeover” back during their legendary beef (A beef that most say he lost, might I add.) Since 2007, Jay has released four albums — and a half if you include Watch The Throne with his now estranged former partner Kanye West — the same amount as Kendrick Lamar, Drake and Kanye West and more than the likes of Eminem and Nas, so the idea that he is inactive or or somehow less active than his competition at the top of the mountain is inherently false.
Yes there are some caveats, those calculations honor Drake’s “playlist” distinction for More Life or the “mixtape” distinction for So Far Gone, but it also ignores that Kendrick’s Section 80 began as a mixtape. The point is, Jay has been just as active or more active than all of his chief competition, and he’s delivered more subpar albums in that timespan than any of them.
In some ways, Jay’s greatest flaw is his longevity. After 21 years in the game, he’s stacked up multiple classics and one of the most perfect albums of all-time in The Blueprint, but that longevity has also allowed him the opportunity to make mistakes, drop duds, and leave blemishes on his resume.
The Blueprint is a monumental, landmark album in rap history, but the immediate follow up, Blueprint 2, was rushed and bloated, full of filler and much like his career, filled with bright spots that allow his enthusiasm to conveniently overlook its blemishes. Even Jay himself admitted as much when he whittled the 25-track double disc album down to just 11 songs and six bonus songs — three of which weren’t on the original version — for Blueprint 2.1, his attempt to rectify the situation.
This happens time and time again when reviewing Jay’s resume — white out is painted over missteps like Unfinished Business, the second forgettable and glossed over collaboration album with R. Kelly, or Collision Course, his odd and still arguably misunderstood mashup album with Linkin Park. Jay knows his resume isn’t spotless, even if his fans won’t admit it. When he ranked his albums he playfully laughed off Kingdom Come, saying “First game back, don’t shoot me.”
Then, there’s the matter of the aforementioned Nas beef. Yeah, the one time Jay got into the ring, put on the gloves, pulled no punches and traded diss songs when pitted against a foe many felt was his equal… he came out the consensus loser of the match. That matters, especially in an individual sport like rapping, where those clashes between titans either create universes or obliterate them.
So yes, Jay-Z is talented, nobody is denying that or arguing that point. His peak is as high as anybody in the history of rap, his accolades and sales numbers are legendary. But Jay-Z is overrated in the sense that he’s simply not the picture of perfection that he’s built up to be. It’s a little nitpicky, but when the margins are so thin between “Greatest of all-time” and simply “great,” every bit of criticism and objection is going to feel like picking nits. Hell, even the man said it himself, “I ain’t perfect, nobody walking this earth’s surface is,” so it’s about time we stop pretending he is too.–Eddie Gonzalez