Overrated/Underrated: Is Jay-Z An Undisputed GOAT, Or Is He Washed Up?

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Overrated/Underrated 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

Jay-Z Is Underrated

I used to think Jay-Z was overrated. Right around the time he and Nas were trading slings and arrows on New York radio and dominating the overarching discussion surrounding hip-hop, what it is, and where it was going. I was hip deep — okay, okay, neck deep — in disgruntled backpacker, underground-rap-over-everything, why-don’t-they-play-real-hip-hop-on-the-radio, misguided nostalgia, oversized headphones and all. You can guess which side I was rooting for in that particular “beef.”

Then a funny thing happened. A friend of mine happened to play “The Bounce,” an album cut from The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse that’s only really memorable because it just happened to feature a young Kanye West — the first placement he’d received as a rapper instead of a producer. Back then, no one really knew or cared or thought that Kanye was ever going to amount to the second biggest rapper in the world, but that’s beside the point. I never noticed that verse much because it was really subpar, especially in hindsight.

But Jay’s second verse shook me to the core:

For those that think Hov thing is bling blingin’
Either haven’t heard the album, or they don’t know English
They only know what the single is, and single that out
To be the meaning of what he’s about
And bein I’m about my business, not minglin’ much
Runnin my mouth, that shit kept lingerin’
But no dummy, that’s the shit I’m sprinklin’
The album with to keep the registers ringin’

See, I knew I hadn’t been listening to the albums, and only really going off singles — some of which I actually liked, but in my militant, holier-than-thou, real hip-hop-head phase, I couldn’t admit that to myself or anyone else, lest my record of music taste be less than unimpeachable (in my mind).

But that line stuck with me, and I realized I may have been doing myself a disservice to make a judgement on albums I hadn’t actually heard. At the very least, if I listened and still heard nothing of real value, at least I could feasibly make the argument that I had listened, and it was all still garbage, and the only good rappers were underground.

What I found out through that rediscovery process is that Jay is often given short shrift when it comes to content — yes, still. The depth of his lines is overlooked in favor of the glitter of beats; the breadth of his substance on the album cuts is outshined by the bombast of his singles.

When Jay retired, then came back with the unfairly maligned Kingdom Come, so much focus was placed on the ostentatious production of lead single “Show Me What You Got,” that the focus of the title track, the wit and wordplay of the intro, and the introspection and insight of “Lost Ones” was devoured in the furor over whether he’d lost “it.” Meanwhile Jay bares his soul and addresses feelings of guilt over the death of his nephew Kaleek, saying, “My nephew died in the car I bought / so under the belief it’s partly my fault,” and delivers the hardest intro of his career aside from “Dynasty Intro” on “The Prelude,” crowing, “Back when rappers wouldn’t dare play lyrical roulette / With an automatic weapon I was rappin’ with a Tec.”

There has always been more depth to Jay’s rhymes than was readily apparent, even in those of latter-day, “washed” Jay-Z records. Although “So Ambitious” from The Blueprint 3 is a bouncy, sunny track produced by Pharrell, complete with jazzy trumpets, Jay works through decades-old slights from teachers and relatives, and reveals how profound an effect their discouragement had on him: “I’m not sure if that’s how adults should speak to kids.”

Jay-Z even opens up about his relationships with women on far more of his catalog than just 4:44, with gems on albums like The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, which was billed ostensibly as a Jay-Z album despite being thought of as a compilation. “Soon You’ll Understand” reads as an open letter to a rejected ex-lover, where Jay autobiographically confesses, “You’re my best friend’s sister, grown woman and all / But you see how I am around girls; I ruin ’em all.” This wasn’t to be Jay’s first, last or only instance of this kind of personal material is, again, to skim over much of his oeuvre, from the obscure, to even his most popular work.

Jay’s music has always been by turns revolutionary, comparing himself to Che Guevara on “Public Service Announcement,” confessional, on tracks such as “Moment Of Clarity,” where he details his inability to mourn for the father figure he never really knew, “Pop died, didn’t cry, didn’t know him that well / Between him doing heroin and me doing crack sales / Put that in the eggshell, standing at the tabernacle / Rather the church, pretending to be hurt wouldn’t work / so a smirk was all on my face,” and cautionary — “Hov did that, so hopefully, you won’t have to go through that.”

Even on his most derided album, Magna Carta… Holy Grail, he shares piercing insight, rebuking America’s fascination with Black culture, even as agents of law enforcement still regard him and other rappers with suspicion and discrimination: “Feds still lurking/ They see I’m still putting work in / Cause somewhere in America / Miley Cyrus is still twerkin’.”

The truth is, it’s impossible to ever properly rate Jay-Z as long as he’s still making music, because everything he drops consistently taps into the zeitgeist of both rap, hip-hop culture, and the greater mainstream world. To rate the impact that he’s had on music and on the culture, we’d have to separate the actual impact he’s having now from the aftershocks of over two decades worth of material that many of us never actually got around to really taking in.

Jay himself put it best in his “Renegade” verse, “Do you listen to music or do you just skim through it?” In an era where it seems like new music is flying at us from all directions faster than anyone can process it, Jay already had a bar for that, that’s just as true today as it was when I was a fifteen year-old grumpy old man. If fans and critics didn’t see it before this, it’s not because Jay was talking too fast, they were just listening slow.–Aaron Williams