Let's begin with a disclaimer: I used to hate Jay-Z, but now I consider him the greatest lyricist of all time. I believe so strongly that Jay-Z is the best lyricist ever that my doctoral dissertation is an intellectual biography of the Jiggaman (AKA Jay-Z). Let me first explain how I came full circle on Jay-Z and then make a counter-argument toEliott C. McLaughlin’s argument for Nas as the greatest lyricist ever.
I was born in 1976—the decade when hip-hop began to emerge. Hip-hop has thus been the soundtrack of my life. As a hip-hop lover and rhyme-writer myself, I always respected Jay-Z’s lyrical skills, but his content was just not appealing to me. As a teenager growing up during the onset of Jay-Z’s career, I was more of a fan of music that I found to be politically conscious or spoke to black power. Groups such as Public Enemy and Dead Prez, who made songs like “Fight the Power” and “They Schools” (a song about schools not teaching black history to students) really resonated with my upbringing. This includes much of Nas’ music. Jay-Z on the other hand, was just another gangster, misogynistic rapper with a very skilled rhyme style or “flow.” While I was familiar with some of the more popular tracks from Jay-Z’s first six CDs, his seventh and eighth CDs really led me to begin changing my opinion of him and deem his work as one truly worthy of study.
Jay-Z released his “Black Album” (his eighth album) in 2003. I was a newly married 27-year-old and found myself frustrated with much of hip-hop that was regurgitating the same misogynistic music that celebrated guns and violence from my teenage years. Many of the so-called “conscious rappers” like Public Enemy were not heard on the radio anymore and I was not buying much music then. I was referred to the “Black Album” album from a friend. The topics on this album from growing up, starting businesses, and developing black power really spoke to where I was at that age. There were other songs featuring violence and misogyny, but I paid more attention to the songs that fit my needs. Jay-Z was no longer drug dealing at this time either so more of his songs were more reflective of these experiences as opposed to celebrating them, which I thought he was doing before.
After listening to the “Black Album” in great detail, I went back and listened to Jay-Z’s other albums again and found more politically conscious messages going back to his first album—references that I missed before. For example, in his song “Can’t knock the hustle” from his first album “Reasonable Doubt,” he stated:
At my arraignment screamin’
All us black folks got is sports and entertainment, until we even.
This showed me that, from the beginning, Jay-Z wanted to use music to build black wealth. Unlike me, he had no problem exploiting the stereotypes of what blacks had to do in order to have success in the entertainment industry so that he could gain enough money to help his community. As he said on his eighth album in the McLaughlin-cited song “Moment of clarity”:
I can’t help the poor if I’m one of them
So I got rich and gave back, to me that’s the win-win.
I then realized that Jay-Z and I were on a similar path—a path to help uplift not only the black community, but people suffering anywhere. I now believe that the story of Jay-Z must be told in order to avoid the same prejudging of hip-hop and its artists that have plagued the music since its inception and this one of the many reasons that I disagree with McLaughlin’s assessment. Let us review further.
First off, McLaughlin states the title of best lyricist has little to do with album sales but cites the artists with the most successful commercial albums for his comparisons to Nas (Tupac, Biggie, Eminem, Too Short, LL Cool J, and OutKast). He states that rappers such as Rakim and Big Daddy Kane do not count because “their catalogs get thinner the deeper you move into the '90s.” How Too Short ends up in an article of great lyricists and KRS-One and Lil’ Wayne do not is a story for another day. Oh yes, and Outkast is a group and does not belong here, but I digress.
Secondly, McLaughlin’s other main argument of Nas being a greater lyricist than Jay-Z is because Jay-Z knows how to make great commercial hits while Nas delivers quality content throughout an entire album. In truth, Jay-Z’s lyrical content is his most underrated quality because more attention is paid to his commercial success than his lyrics and I am guilty of that too. Let us examine.
As a lyricist myself, I am a fan of clever rhymes. I love double triple, and even quadruple entendres, which is when writers give multiple meanings in the same line. No one does this better than Jay-Z. For example, on a song from his “American Gangster” album, he says:
I’m a K-I-double-L-E-R
See y’all in hell
Shoot [n-word] straight through the E-R.
At first glance, one would think that Jay-Z is simply saying: “I’m a killer and I don’t care. I’ll even come and shoot you in the emergency room” and yes, he is saying this. At the same time however, this entire song is about the fact that people only respect him and call him (as he says in the song’s introduction) “the greatest writer of the twentieth century” when he writes about sex, drugs, and violence, but whenever he writes something “thought-provokin’,” people say he has lost his edge. To that end, when he says “shoot [n-word] straight through the E-R,” this is also be a double entendre referring to the usage of the n-word with the “a” at the end versus the “er”; the former being seen by some in the black community as a term of endearment while the latter being seen by many blacks as a derogatory term used by white racists. The debate still rages on in this new millennium as to whether this term should still be used by black people. This is what Jay-Z means in his book Decoded when he refers to rap being “symbolic and literal…nakedly obvious and subliminally effective at the same time.”
This is where Jay-Z does not get enough credit. Yes Nas has made many powerful statements and commentary on issues facing the black community such as in his song “Black girl lost”, but he has also made his fair share of derogatory comments against women such as his song “Oochie Wally,” which led Jay-Z to ask
Is it “Oochie wally wally” or is it “One Mic”?
Is it “Black girl lost” or “Shorty owe you for ice?’”
While McLaughlin points out that listeners can easily hear references to Huey P. Newton and Ivan Van Sertima on a Nas album, listeners can also hear references to Fred Hampton and Malcolm X on a Jay-Z album. In fact, during his “Watch the Throne” tour, Jay-Z and Kanye did a song called “Made in America” dedicated to Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Betty Shabazz, Coretta Scott King and more. The audience seemed to not expect this at a Jay-Z concert, with one concertgoer I overheard saying sadly “I wish he would have performed ‘Ether,’” his classic Nas dis track.
Lastly, McLaughlin states that Jay-Z wrote the lines “If skills sold, truth be told/I'd probably be, lyrically, Talib Kweli” because he knew his skills were not as lyrically adept as other rappers. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. In analyzing other parts of the same verse that McLaughlin cites, Jay-Z says:
Growing up in a poverty-stricken, drug-ridden, and fatherless community led Jay-Z to make a conscious decision to exploit the music industry for everything it is worth so that he could make money and give back. This is why he raises millions of dollars through his scholarship fund. This is why he and Kanye smash up a Maybach in his video “Otis” and then sell the car in order to raise money for a charity helping those in the Horn of Africa. This is why he helped create water wells with the United Nations in certain impoverished communities in countries like Angola. This is why he helped raise money for Columbine and this is why he did a tribute concert for 911 victim’s families and donated 100% of the proceeds to that cause. Lastly, this is why he and Beyoncé raised more money than many other fundraisers in helping to elect and re-elect the first African-American President.
It is too easy to dismiss Jay-Z as a great lyricist because of his commercial success. He should not be condemned for being a good “business, man.” It is clear that Nas is one of the greatest MCs ever. I, like Nas, am not a fan of lists. Given, however, that we are obsessed with “number ones” in this world, lists will continue to appear. While there are several reasons why some may believe Jay-Z should not be on anyone’s list, my hope is that you will see by my case above why he deserves consideration—even greater consideration than Nas. The defense rests.
Omekongo Dibinga is a rapper, motivational speaker, and CNN award-winning iReporter. He has released 7 albums and 5 books and is the founding director of UPstander International. For more information, please visit www.upstanderinternational.com.