How Jay-Z has Revived Hip Hop for the Next 20 Years
I recently made a trip home to spend Thanksgiving with my parents who live in a small New Jersey town about 7 miles west of New York City. We went through our customary holiday ritual by piling into one car and making our way down the New Jersey turnpike to grandma’s house for an afternoon of turkey, football, booze, reminiscing and laughter. My grandmother had just celebrated her 90th birthday the Sunday before and, with all due respect, one could notice that the years were taking their toll on her. This once commanding, self-empowered, beautiful black woman who raised fifteen foster children during a time when it was difficult for an African American woman to raise herself now struggled to feed herself. To peek into the mind of this woman who had seen such change over the last 70 years would be priceless. I remember when my brother Jordan and I were children, this woman would single handedly prepare a Thanksgiving meal that would rival any chef in terms of pure love of preparation and timing. Believe me when I say that the love that she put into each dish was manifested twice over in its appearance and taste. Everything from the turkey to the sweet potatoes to the macaroni and cheese were so delicious and succulent that I couldn’t help but smile while I ate. While Grandma hasn’t run the kitchen in quite some time her daughters, my aunts, have more than picked up the slack and this year was no exception. After a great meal and a few hours of catching up with the extended family, we decided to make our way home.
Upon arriving at our parent’s home, my brother made the suggestion to attend a post T-day party on the upper east side via a text message he'd received from a friend earlier in the day. The idea of going to a party seemed to be just the reason to make the trek into Mecca, even if the party was on the upper east side. Jordan elected to push and as soon as we hit route 3 East, out came the Blueprint III and into the cd player it went. I hadn’t heard any of the tracks up until this moment and needless to say there are more than a few that are nothing short of incredible. I’m particularly taken with the song entitled Every Day A Star is Born. This is a work in which the venerable king of hip-hop turns around and flaunts his prowess by paying homage to some of the most influential hip-hop superstars such as Diddy, Ma$e, The Wu Tang Clan, Snoop, Eminem and Dre as well as up and coming artists such as Young Jeezy, Drake and Lil’ Wayne. Jay is also quick to give credit to this new generation of hip-hop royalty even going so far as to let a North Carolina newcomer named J. Cole wrap up the track with an original verse. This track appeals to me particularly because its creative theme centers on a testament of praise to colleagues. I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to hear such a perspective especially in a genre of music where its artists have been historically known to assassinate each other's character. He even has the grace to acknowledge the influence of Mob Deep despite the infamous Summer Jam incident of 2001 involving Prodigy.
As we made our way down the ramp of the 495 leading to the Lincoln Tunnel, I was yet again overcome by the breathtaking skyline that you momentarily catch across the Hudson River even if only for the a moment. But for a bit of toll booth traffic, we quickly found ourselves in the city quickly making our way up town, I noticed how empty the city was. Of course this should be completely understandable considering that it was Thanksgiving night. There wasn’t but a few cars on the street and, except for a few people walking their dogs and some newly formed inches off their waist, the sidewalks were barren. It was the quietest I remember ever seeing the city.
We were just turning onto 73rd Street off 1st Avenue when I heard Empire State of Mind for the first time and it reminded me of the first time I heard U2’s One in terms of how here is an already world renowned act right on the verge of iconic status whose newest release vaults them to the next level. I only got to hear it once before Jordan located a parking spot down the street from the party. As he killed the engine, I contemplated whether or not to him go on alone while I stay in the car and listen to the track again.
We stayed at the party for about an hour indulging in a drink and a bit of flirting with a couple models from Oklahoma who had just celebrated their first year in the city that never sleeps. Both had landed pretty big commercial contracts through their booking agents in the last month. Their youthful confidence and humble enthusiasm are endearing. It's not long before we decide to pay our respects and head downtown for a drink. The expression on my face as we made our way back to the car is one that my brother didn’t need to interpret with too much effort. We get into the car and without saying a word he went directly to track number five. Jordan decided to go west 57th street before heading south. We casually make our way without a care in the world then south passing through Times Square. We are engulfed in the commercial spectacle of lights, billboards. I saw for a moment where Alicia Keyes might have gotten some inspirationto belt out one of the best chorus verses I’ve heard in a long time and memories of some of the best time I’ve had while in the city came flooding back.
There has been a traditional argument in favor of the artistic credibility of hip-hop that proposes the craft as a progressive form of poetry. While I find that this point of view is valid, there is one weakness that previously prevented from me from wholeheartedly embracing it. Traditional works of poetry or at least those worth remembering provide an underlying meaning beyond work's phrases that compel one to critically interpret what is being conveyed. Basically, you have to think about the piece in terms of how it relates too you. It is the establishment of this personal relationship to the work that opens the gateway to understanding its aesthetic importance to society as a whole. I didn't think that majority of hip-hop spoke beyond the confines of a unilateral experience. It seems as though every major star within the genre had the same story..harsh upbringing, having to fend for oneself early on, but equipped with a major ambition, smarts and courage to get something better by any means necessary, touched up with a warning to those who'd stand in their way. Is all hip-hop like this? Absolutely NOT. However, with the exception of a select few such as Common, Talib Kweli etc. the ones that get the radio and club play weren't talking about much else. And while the formula, to an extent,still works, I just think that hip-hop was capable of so much more. Then I heard Empire State of Mind and realized that hip-hop music is indeed evolving and doing so in a way I couldn't possibly imagine.
One of the reasons we’re so moved by the seductive prose of Shakespeare’s sonnets or the anger of racial alienation from Langston Hughes or the empowerment from Maya Angelou is because each artist evokes an emotion that provide a universal characteristic that allows the work to be identified by all. You don’t need to have an intimate knowledge of being in love or being African-American, gay or a woman to understand the power of any of the aforementioned artists’ message. It is this personal definition of what truly makes a great work of poetry that validates how Jay-Z’s work (which I am sure was not achieved without the incredible talents of several collaborators) realizes the importance of hip-hop within the grain of the American cultural standard. Hip-Hop is as much a quintessential symbol of the American ideology as Eugene O’Neil or blues or apple pie or well…New York City It is this cultural actualization which makes hip-hop more important a genre than its ever been.
The rise to prominence of Mr. Carter's career is also truly American in terms of it being completely self-made. The significance of the Blueprint series is a culmination of an artist who originally couldn't find a label to sign him. The series embodies a carefully mapped out journey as to how one can rise up through the rejection of the music industry only to achieve success on one's own terms. Think about that the next time you resign to give up your dream. Empire State of Mind is the coronation theme, if you will, of this success and serves as the not only the new cornerstone of hip-hop music but a new standard of modern music period. Empire State of Mind is an artistic triumph and it’s brilliance is what will help carry the standard of modern music for the next 20 years. Moreover, it takes the art of hip-hop music to a new level of relevance within the aesthetic construct of what the world identifies as any form of artistic expression. While that realization may be one that some don’t want to embrace, their feelings can't hinder it's truth. This is what Jay-Z and Ms. Keyes manifest with such intent and purpose which is why it is the new anthem of the greatest city in the world.
The aesthetic brilliance of Empire State of Mind is comparable to So What, Pusher Man and New York, New York all rolled into one melodic anthem complimented by a chorus from Alicia Keyes that combines the grace of Ross and the spunk of Streisand simultaneously. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of hip-hop. The lyrics of certain songs that lend to the social apathy of violence and misogyny are enough to put anyone who understands the true issues facing urban youth off the music it has come to so altruistically represent. However, the cultural and social relevance of Jay-Z’s lyrics, especially on this track, provide an insight into the heightened examples of observed social behavior and is done in such a way that one is forced to stand up and take notice. More importantly, the observations from the Empire State of Mind center on the most influential city of the modern age. The raw and visceral nature of this melodic commentary is never more prevalent than during the third verse in which he speaks of the young and innocent who travel to the harsh concrete jungle with dreams only to have to compromise their morals to survive. He is just as candid speaking of the unwavering pitfalls that face all who dare make their name in the world’s most unforgiving city as he is to give it the praise and glory for which its inhabitants have worked, built, cried and bled so much. He keeps it 100% and it’s truth resonates with every beat.
Jay-Z is one of a number of hip-hop artists who have taken the trend of incorporating live bands, entire orchestrs and a wide variety of samples ranging from jazz to folk to rock 'n roll only to evolve the genre in a completely fresh and new direction. This creative strategy which insists on breaking down genre based barriers has not only created a new life for hip-hop music but brought a rejuvenated interest into the brilliance of these original works. A whole new generation of musician has since been inspired to investigate the source of the samples and discover a new world. While Empire State of Mind might not fit into this particular category, it is one of more than a handful of songs that our grandchildren will listen to and praise as a classic. One of them might even be so moved in the way Miles Davis was when, as a child back in St. Louis, he used to listen to the “Harlem Rhythm” radio program which inspired him to learn jazz. And we all know how that turned out, don’t we?
Here is an incredible live version of the song performed and Alicia Keyes' World's AIDS Day Concert. Is Ms. Keyes as talented as she is beautiful or what? WOW...
Here it is:
As always, I welcome any feedback or questions?