Music

An Examination Of Jay-Z’s Career-Long Rap Nerdom

In 2017, Jay-Z paid homage to all the rappers who inspired him throughout his legendary career. He mentioned the “usuals” like Notorious BIG, Rakim, and Big Daddy Kane — but he also showed love to a slew of unheralded MCs like Showbiz & AG, Nice and Smooth, Digable Planets, Sean Price, and others, reflecting that he’ll always be a rap nerd at heart.

A month ago, rising Buffalo MC Che Noir told DJBooth that, “I treat every song like Jay-Z gon’ listen to it.” He may have already heard her work with 38 Spesh and Apollo Brown, including the recently released As God Intended. He’s lent support to the “underground” rap scene in myriad ways, from signing Griselda’s Westside Gunn and Benny The Butcher to Roc Nation management to recently making Mach Hommy’s Mach’s Hard Lemonade album a Tidal exclusive.

There are a million reasons to think that Jay-Z wouldn’t be tapped into the underground: he’s a busy family man with constant entrepreneurial exploits. He’s expressed a penchant for fine art, yachting, and other caviar class hobbies which would conceivably take time out from music discovery. His infamous “you only get half a bar” diss on “Takeover” implied that there are some MCs that aren’t selling enough to be on his radar.

But of course, he would’ve had to hear the obscure disses to know they weren’t worth his time. Jay-Z doesn’t miss a thing. The perception that people hold of Jay-Z being above and beyond the fray misunderstands the reality that before all of his other bonafides, he’s an MC at heart.

There’s a YouTube clip of pioneering DJ Mr. Magic promoting Jay-Z performing at a rap showcase in 1986, 10 years before his Reasonable Doubt debut. There’s also footage of him battling on a street corner in 1993. He used to rap with a swift, multi-syllabic style, then adjusted it to reflect changing times toward the mid-’90s. All these details paint the picture of someone with an immense passion for their craft. Anyone who’s listened to Jay-Z discuss his life knows that if he didn’t genuinely love rap, it would have been easy for him to leave it behind. He even noted that friends in his “other career” used to clown rappers because rap wasn’t a lucrative industry — but he stuck at it.

Understanding Jay’s passion for the craft makes it easier to contextualize his excitement to hear dope rap anywhere from a rap battle to an “underground” MC. His longtime engineer Guru told Complex that “Jay-Z has probably watched every SMACK DVD, Grind Time battle, freestyle, and every battle that has ever been on YouTube. If you ever battle in any situation that has any remote type of promotion, he’s seen it.”

The Battle rap scene is regarded by traditionalists as the purest form of rap, with no gimmicks, marketing, or “hook” to the festivities. For the most part, the best rapper prevails. Battlers have taken what used to be a street corner/barbershop affair and turned it into performance art, fusing poetic devices like wordplay, (extended) metaphor, imagery, and assonance with charismatic showmanship. The craftsmanship and veritable theory of battle-rap holds power for lyrics junkies like Drake, Lupe Fiasco, Joe Budden, Lloyd Banks — and Jay-Z.

His 2012 “y’all gon get this work” tweet, referencing Loaded Lux’s classic performance against Calicoe, is collectively regarded by the Battle rap culture as a watershed moment that helped boost the sport’s visibility. The battle scene is still on the fringes of pop culture, but battlers can be assured they have one high-powered spectator.

Guru also noted that “Jay watches these dudes freestyle on YouTube. Like, if you’re a battle MC from Philly, you may not have been in a battle but you just get on YouTube and start rapping, Jay watches those religiously. It’s just the weirdest thing in the world but he really loves it to the point where I’m like, ‘Yo, turn it off.’”

Rap commentator Taxstone once quipped that even mailmen can rap in Philly, reflecting a culturally shared sentiment that Philly is “home of the spitters.” It’s no surprise that when Jay-Z and the rest of the Roc brain trust wanted to expand their label, they opted to do so with a Philly crew. First, he sought Philly legends Major Figgas, but it didn’t work it. It did with State Property. The team of raw, gritty spitters led by Beanie Sigel and Freeway wasn’t a glove fit with a label that had previously been so flossy, but Jay-Z loved their hard-charging style and respected their pens.

Listen to the way he raves at their rhymes during their classic Hot 97 freestyle, or the way he subtly gives Freeway his approval by noting, “keep going,” on the classic “What We Do.” He probably could have sold more by signing artists that were more commercially palatable (though they had their share of club bangers), but he may not have had more fun doing it. For someone who loved bars, and wanted to stay connected to that raw feel, it didn’t get much better than collaborating with prime State Property.

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In a way, his proximity to Philly’s Meek Mill is a continuation of that dynamic — as was his signing of Griselda, a group of uncompromising spitters who bring your favorite crime flicks to life over immersive production. Their big 3, Conway, Westside Gunn, and Benny The Butcher have been rapping for over a decade but picked up steam in the mid-to-late 2010s with a sound that harkened to beloved acts like The Lox, State Property, and Wu-Tang.

Jay was all in the mix with those artists, which apparently made him a big fan of Griselda. Benny reflected on meeting Jay and being told that the rap vet “sees a lot of the old Roc-A-Fella in us.” That’s probably a big reason why he signed Westside Gunn and Benny. He’s served as an OG figure for the crew according to Benny, being “a guide,” and also letting Conway know that emotion is okay after overseeing a stirring performance of “The Cow.”

Mach Hommy is a former Griselda collaborator who doesn’t exactly harken to prime Roc-A-Fella, but he’s also garnered Jay-Z’s respect. One can look at Jay-Z’s prolonged admiration for Jay Electronica, who he actually did a collaboration album with, and figure that he has a love for Mach’s abstract, esoteric lyricism. The two took an ominous picture in November of 2019, which sparked rumors of a signing that never manifested. Still, Mach maintains proximity to the Roc, releasing his latest album exclusively on Tidal. Both Mach and Jay are so reclusive that there isn’t much public insight into their relationship, but it likely stemmed from mutual respect for bars.

Jay-Z, like Diddy, is a rap figure who accrued great wealth and commercial stature but has always shown love to the purest form of the art. Whether it was a simple tweet, signing State Property, or attempting to sign revered spitters like the late Sean Price, he’s always looked to make a way for those of his ilk. The lyricist fraternity is like the mafia. They were once the most dominant force in rap before modernization pushed them to the fringes. But luckily for many of them, Jay-Z is the Godfather of the scene, and he tries to make sure everybody eats.

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