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Jay-Z


A platinum-selling A-list celebrity rapper; and one of a pair of stars if including wife BEYONCÉ (whom he married on April 4, 2008), maverick JAY-Z has turned in several-plus chart-topping albums and some memorable hits such as bizarre “Annie” re-mash, `Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)’, `Big Pimpin’’ and `99 Problems’. Despite being one of the most lauded yet egotistical rappers in the game, JAY-Z (who worked his way up from the slums of the Marcy projects) has become one of the richest entrepreneurs in the music industry, thanks to his booming Roc-a-Fella imprint.
Born Shawn Corey Carter, December 4, 1969, Brooklyn, New York, the young JAY-Z (then known as “Jazzy”) began hustling on the streets until he met the aspiring Big Jaz, who was signed to a small independent outlet. Influenced by said rapper, JAY-Z decided to launch his own record label with just a few well-known rap artists around Brooklyn, instead of trying to break into the already expanding gangsta rap industry. He enlisted Damon Dash and Kareem Burke, and together, in 1995, they established Roc-a-Fella records, just one year before JAY-Z issued his crossover debut set, REASONABLE DOUBT (1996) {*9}.
Critically acclaimed and pretty successful for an independent release, the hour-long set peaked at number 23, but became a cult record amongst the fledgling rapsters on the East Coast scene. The album also boasted a fine line-up of guests; soon to become a common thing on JAY-Z records, such as MARY J. BLIGE (`Can’t Knock The Hustle’) and the ill-fated NOTORIOUS B.I.G. (`Brooklyn’s Finest’), plus MEMPHIS BLEEK (`Coming Of Age’) and FOXY BROWN (`Ain’t No Nigga’).
The following year, JAY-Z ditched his gangsta efforts and went for a more soulful-orientated direction on Top 3 sophomore set, IN MY LIFETIME, VOL 1 {*8} – the title of his unaffiliated first single from back in ‘94. There was room again for BROWN, this time alongside BABYFACE on minor hit `(Always Be My) Sunshine’, as well as studio places for highlights, `The City Is Mine’ (with BLACKSTREET), `I Know What Girls Like’ (ft. PUFF DADDY and LIL’ KIM), TOO $HORT (`Real Niggaz’) and `Face Off’ (ft. SAUCE MONEY). With this gathering and a “solo” hit (`Who You Wit II’), JAY-Z proved, to a mainstream audience, that he was no ghetto thug, just a canny producer with a lot to offer. Note that the UK version featured the re-vamped hit version of ROSE ROYCE’s `Wishing On A Star’.
VOL 2… HARD KNOCK LIFE (1998) {*8} went straight to No.1. Boasting a slew of top-notch hit singles, `Can I Get A…’ (ft. AMIL & JA RULE) and the aforementioned `Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)’ – complete with piano and a chorus of orphaned children – JAY-Z was also complemented by Big Jaz, TOO $HORT, MEMPHIS BLEEK, FOXY BROWN; not withstanding up and coming rap artists such as DMX (on `Money, Cash, Hoes’), KID CAPRI (on `It’s Like That’) and The LOX, BEANIE SIGEL and Sauce (on `Reservoir Dogs’); `Money Ain’t A Thang’ (ft. JERMAINE DUPRI) and `It’s Alright’ (another ft. MEMPHIS…), emerged as bonus tracks.
By this point, JAY-Z had turned his record company into a “dynasty” by producing his own clothing line and representing a huge host of New York’s finest talents. As per usual, he unfettered another two chart-topping albums over the next two years: vanity project VOL 3… LIFE AND TIMES OF S. CARTER (1999) {*7} – for only the most avid collector – and a sort of label sampler (but not quite), DYNASTY ROC LA FAMILIA (2000) {*6} that included a whole host of in-house artists like the aforementioned MEMPHIS BLEEK and AMIL.
The first of these was also the home to `Big Pimpin’’ (featuring the UGK duo), `Watch Me’ (ft. DR. DRE) and even MARIAH CAREY for `Things That U Do’. The second set was predominantly a various artists set in all but name (R. KELLY, MEMPHIS BLEEK and DYNASTY were all given a shot on their ownsome), though the collaborative aspect of the record underlined several pieces with BEANIE SIGEL, and one each with SCARFACE (`This Can’t Be Life’) and SNOOP DOGG (`Get Your Mind Right Mami’).
These pair of chillers were nothing compared to sublime, THE BLUEPRINT (2001) {*9}, a No.1 album heavily compared to Z’s breakthrough debut. The non-collaborative set (in terms of guest appearances), it featured `Takeover’, a vicious attack on East Coasters NAS and MOBB DEEP. Although this feud continued for many moons after its release, nobody was very clear to why JAY-Z launched such a tirade on two very well-respected alumni of the hip-hop scene. The album also spawned crossover hit singles, `Izzo (H.O.V.A.)’, `Girls, Girls, Girls’ and `Jigga That Nigga’. The testing MTV UNPLUGGED (2001) {*6} was one for his fans, though it did prove he could work within a “band” structure, as in hip-hop act The ROOTS, who also produced the Top 20 entry.
Next on JAY-Z’s tight agenda was a fully-fledged collaboration album, issued in March 2002 with contemporary R&B artist R. KELLY: entitled “The Best Of Both Worlds”. Despite its shoo-in No.1 slot, this was not the rapper’s most astute decision ever, and in hindsight, as it turned out in the years to come, a very poor judgement indeed.
New York’s shrewdest cut double, THE BLUEPRINT 2: THE GIFT & THE CURSE (2002) {*7} re-set the bar. A sprawling, near two-hour trawl through contemporary hip hop featuring everyone from DR. DRE, RAKIM and KANYE WEST, to LENNY KRAVITZ, FAITH EVANS (alongside the long-gone NOTORIOUS B.I.G.), SEAN PAUL, and some usual suspects, the album represented an opportunity for JAY-Z to pander to his artistic whims without the editorial discipline required of a conventional set. Not withstanding The NEPTUNES-produced hit, `Excuse Me Miss’, one song in particular: the near chart-topping `03 Bonnie & Clyde’, was significant in that it featured a fresh DESTINY’S CHILD-free, BEYONCÉ.
While the prolific JAY-Z announced his impending retirement, THE BLACK ALBUM (2003) {*8} achieved massive multi-platinum returns and critical plaudits due to its “closing down sale-off” motif. The rapper’s lyrics cut to the quick on the travails of the black experience (`Change Clothes’ and the double-edged `Dirt Off Your Shoulder’ & `99 Problems’), more often than not from a strictly personal viewpoint. But of course that was what made the likes of `December 4’ and the Russell Crowe/“Gladiator”-sampling `What More Can I Say’, so compelling.
Towards the end of 2014, JAY-Z continued his chart domination via two collaborations: the first a sequel alongside R&B crooner R. KELLY (`Unfinished Business’); the second a mini-set with nu-metal rappers LINKIN PARK (COLLISION COURSE {*5}). The latter was an official “mash-up”/“mosh-up” cutting and pasting some of the best bits of the respective artists’ catalogues, whilst spawning a one-off hit, `Numb / Encore’.
When a buoyant JAY-Z took over the running of Def Jam (as executive label president) from Messrs Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin, he would sign up rising stars; including RIHANNA and YOUNG JEEZY. An “I Declare War” NYC concert, featuring P. DIDDY, KANYE WEST and verbal sparring partner NAS; almost put a high-profile behind him.
His sabbatical done and dusted, JAY-Z re-opened for business, in November 2006, on “comeback” set (of sorts), KINGDOM COME {*6}. His plan was to dispatch his 7th consecutive No.1 album (and attendant big ticket item `Show Me What You Got’) under his own Shawn Carter esteem, though this was curtailed before going to press, probably subsiding to pressure from a plethora of co-producers (including DR. DRE, Just Blaze and so on). The fact was, that, on paper, JAY-Z should’ve turned in a great set of songs, though the reality was that even with the glowing guest list of A-list celebs on show; including girlfriend BEYONCÉ (on `Hollywood’), USHER and PHARRELL (on `Anything’), part-producer NE-YO (on `Minority Report’), COLDPLAY’s Chris Martin on the concluding `Beach Chair’, several critics gave it the thumbs down.
Hot on its heels and hoping to make up for his previous set’s shortcomings, AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007) {*8} resurrected the man’s street-cred. The chart-scaling record was not the bona fide soundtrack from the film of the same name, but it was certainly inspired by, and included excerpts, from the movie itself: e.g. `Intro’ (featuring dialogue by Denzel Washington), `Success’ and `Blue Magic’. A sample-tastic archival display of hip hop-meeting-Blaxploitation soul, JAY-Z edged it in bits and pieces from CURTIS MAYFIELD (for the bonus title track), BARRY WHITE (on `No Hook’), MARVIN GAYE (on `American Dreamin’’) and The ISLEY BROTHERS (and guest BEANIE SIGEL on `Ignorant Shit’), whereas PHARRELL, P. DIDDY, LIL WAYNE, NAS and, of course, BEYONCÉ, guaranteed curiosity from pop/rap fans.
Switching allegiances from Def Jam to the Atlantic-endorsed Roc Nation Records, JAY-Z pulled off another calculated commercial victory a la THE BLUEPRINT 3 (2009) {*8}. Opening cut, `What We Talkin’ About’ (feat. Luke Steele), was not dispatched as a single that honour went to his RIHANNA and (co-producer) KANYE WEST collaboration, Run This Town’, as well as an ALICIA KEYS-enhanced No.1, `Empire State Of Mind Overwhelmed by a further stellar cast of hip hop/rap stars, JEEZY, SWIZZ BEATZ, DRAKE, J. COLE, PHARRELL, KID CUDI, MR HUDSON and TIMBALAND (the latter the other co-producer), inspiration came via big fan President Barack Obama.
As joint celeb/rich-list efforts go, JAY-Z and KANYE WEST’s chart-scaling WATCH THE THRONE (2011) {*6} was the ultimate bees knees. Not content with this OTT political pop-rap creation as a dual effort, the pair respectively roped in Q-TIP, PHARRELL, SEAL, MR. HUDSON et al on a number of songs, including single fodder, `Otis’ (backtracking OTIS REDDING), `Who Gon Stop Me’, non-hit `Lift Off’ (with BEYONCÉ) and `Niggas In Paris’.
2013’s MAGNA CARTA… HOLY GRAIL {*5} celebrated two things: the birth of his daughter Blue Ivy Carter and his first transatlantic No.1 – Britain had been slowly but surely caught up with the pop-rap phenomena that was JAY-Z. Produced by TIMBALAND and Jerome “J. Roc” Harmon, the gargantuan guest list was again astute; though tour partner JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE on the `Holy Grail’ (sampling NIRVANA’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hit), might’ve stretched the boundaries a tad too far. On the other side of the spectrum, RICK ROSS (`Fuckwithmeyouknowigotit’), FRANK OCEAN (`Oceans’) and of course, BEYONCÉ (on `Part II (On The Run)’), weighed in with a more conventional note of self-approval.
Busying himself once again with the corporate side of his enterprise (though joint singles with DRAKE and DJ KHALID emerged), JAY-Z and BEYONCÉ were proud to announce the birth of twins; there was also an induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame; the first rap artist to achieve this feat.
Bolstered by Song of the Year, `The Story Of O.J.’, and a similar Grammy nomination for parent album 4:44 (2017) {*5}, JAY-Z was unsurprisingly reaching another top slot on this his 13th studio album. Humbled by a critical pasting from several reviewers, and possibly overshadowed by the fizz of his wife’s “Lemonade” set, hubby JAY-Z was more or less going down the self-centred route taken by KANYE WEST – though in polar opposition by way of his Obama-to-Clinton (Democrat) lean. Still, there was minor hit compensation in `Kill Jay Z’, `Smile’ (ft. Gloria Carter), `Caught Their Eyes’ (ft. FRANK OCEAN), `Moonlight’, `Marcy Me’, the title track and the reggae rap of `Bam’ (ft. DAMIAN MARLEY).
And if The CARTER FAMILY of old ruled the country back between the wars (I & II), The CARTERS (i.e. BEYONCÉ and JAY-Z) ruled the rap world in 2018 via their collaborative near No.1 set, “Everything Is Love”.
© MC Strong/MCS 2000-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Oct2019

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