Jay-Z's claim to being "The Best Rapper Alive" is delivered so flippantly it's almost filler anymore. Certainly, there was a time after 2003's The Black Album dropped that it'd have been indisputable to any serious fan of hip-hop music, but, in the years since, it's become such a droning constant that I can't recall the last time I put Jigga's self-applied title under any real scrutiny. Maybe now is the time. Driving to Jay's show at Dodge Theatre last night I kept thinking about a Michael Jackson eulogy that ran in our New York sister paper:
What Black American culture -- musical and otherwise -- lacks for now isn't talent or ambition, but the unmistakable presence of some kind of spiritual genius: the sense that something other than or even more than human is speaking through whatever fragile mortal vessel is burdened with repping for the divine, the magical, the supernatural, the ancestral.
Certainly, Shawn Carter has the resume. 13 years in to his career he's sold 26 million records including a Thriller level classic, The Black Album, which might just be the best record of this decade. Like Jackson did with his publishing empire, Jay Z has gotten involved in the business side of things, with mixed results. His trademark look -- at Dodge he unsurprisingly wore a black Yankees hat, black Ray Ban-styled sunglasses, a plain whit t-shirt and baggy jeans -- isn't quite as iconic as that red jacket, but it's got it's place. What's more, Jay backs his status up with quality work. As he argues:
Pound for pound / I'm the best to ever come around here
Look what I embody
The soul of a hustler I really ran the street
A CEO's mind / That marketing plan was me
And no I ain't get shot up a whole bunch of times
Or make up shit in a whole bunch of lines
And I ain't animated like, say, a Busta Rhymes
But the real shit you get when you bust down my lines
Add that to the fact I went plat a bunch of times
Times that by my influence on pop culture
I'm supposed to be number one on everybody's list
We'll see what happens when I no longer exist
As he played "Big Pimpin" to a raucous and majority white crowd (the song is a decade old, if you can believe it) it was obvious his catalog remains vital, even if, as I twittered, the references to Pamela Anderson Lee and MTV's Jam of the Week seem very, very dated.
The problem, though, is that Jay isn't reaching for new heights, as demonstrated at last night's show. As freelancer, Brian Bardwell argues in this week's New Times, H.O.V.A.'s beef with Auto Tune on "D.O.A." is pathetic compared to his classic battles with Nas. Jay's best moment on stage was a five-minute interlude in the closer, "Encore," where he had the house lights turned up and offered impromptu fashion critiques to dozens of people in the crowd, all the way up to the balcony. (Notes: pink shirt inappropriate, jerseys inappropriate, Yankee's hat good.) It was one of the most intense efforts at "crowd connection" I've ever witnessed -- and was especially notable for a rap show -- but it was no Moon Walk.
Here's the thing: Jay (probably wisely) has not allowed himself to become the kind of tabloid target Jackson was. His relationship with Beyonce, one of the biggest stars in the world, could, conceivably, drive things to new heights if he allowed more than a few photos of them to circulate. He doesn't. That's probably good for his long-term health -- the dude turns 40 in December, making him only 10 years younger than Jackson -- but it's not conducive to the minting of a spiritual genius. Hopefully, that'll all work out well and he'll be a happy and rich old man. If not, maybe he'll reconcile with Auto Tune and make his own breathtakingly sincere "sangin" record, like 808s & Heartbreaks. Til then, though, Jay might be The Best Rapper alive, but I'd put my money on Kanye West eventually becoming something closer to the spiritual heir of MJ.
Last Night: Jay-Z at Dodge Theatre
Personal Bias: I love Auto Tune in capable hands. Like, say, 808s and Heartbreaks, which kills Jay's post-Black Album work.
Random Fact: Read my take on Jay's battles here.
By The Way: I think one of the best arguments for Jay's status comes from Lil' Wayne's "Mr. Carter" where he raps, "So the next time you talk about Pac, Biggie and Jay Z don't forget Weezy, baby." Sure, Jay is also on the song, making it an appropriate time to flatter him, but putting him as one of the big three with 2Pac and B.I.G. still means something.
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