Once Again It’s The Life (Vibe December/January 2011)
by dream hampton
When Jay-Z staged his farewell concert at Madison Square Garden on November 25, 2003, it seemed that hip-hop was having a moment. One of its biggest to date. “This is history right here,” said Sean Combs, no stranger to historic hip-hop accomplishments. “Jay-Z in the Garden all by himself. He just sold out the shit himself in five minutes.” Nothing was left to chance, down to the last detail. As Sinatra had Howard Cosell for his 1974 show in the Garden, Jay enlisted sport’s most recognizable voice—the world-renowned fight announcer Michael Buffer—to introduce him. It was a monumental staging of his victory lap.
Hip-hop's brass came to the storied arena to perform their biggest hits with and for him—simultaneously saluting Jay and celebrating how far the genre had come. “My whole career I been thinking of a night like this… a night where all the stars align.” he said in Fade to Black, the DVD that was supposed to document his retirement at age 34. “But I feel like I waited too long for it to be over this fast.”
Indeed, during the past few years, Jay has turned in one first-ever historic performance after another. He put on a tux to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of his debut, Reasonable Doubt, at Radio City Music Hall in 2006. Having released his four-star classic The Blueprint on the fateful day of September 11, 2001 he returned to Madison Square Garden for a televised benefit concert when he released the follow-up to that album eight years later. His biggest single from The Blueprint 3 had him performing “Empire State of Mind” at the old Yankee Stadium during the 7th inning stretch of Game Two of the Yankees vs. Phillies World Series.
That song, possibly his biggest in more than a decade of huge singles, became the Yankees’ official anthem [supplanting Sinatra’s “New York New York”] when he performed it again at the Yankees' 27th victory parade. At the celebration, Jay stood in front of City Hall with New York's Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who was also enjoying an extension on his reign. The last time Jay had taken the stage at City Hall, he was Russell Simmons’ special guest at a 2003 rally to repeal the Rockefeller laws, notoriously unfair drug sentencing rules that filled the state’s prisons with Jay’s generation of hustlers. In an ironic self-reflexive nod, Jay and his partners had named their company after the law and its billionaire architect. Years later, there he was, Rap’s El Presidente, sharing a victory float with professional sports’ most dominant team and New York City’s billionaire mayor—rapping about cooking up work at his old State Street apartment on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge.
That apartment, where he’d have cookouts when he was home from his frequent trips down South, probably won’t survive being demolished to make way for the stadium he broke ground on this past May, where his basketball team— the soon-to-be Brooklyn Nets— will ball.
And once again here he is, here we all are, at the still-new $1.5 billion Yankee Stadium—not far from 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, the apartment building where hip hop was invented—witnessing this arena’s first-ever concert on September 13th and 14th. Hip hop architect DJ Kool Herc shows up on a whim, having walked the few blocks to the venue. When Jay realizes that Herc came to the first show without a ticket and held court outside the stadium where he and Eminem were performing, he made sure that on the second and final night, Herc is front and center and that the camera operators capture the moment on the stadium’s 168-by-48-foot wall of video, designed by Mark Rodgers of Tribe Inc., the same firm that designed the look, sound and execution of the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver’s Mile High Stadium where Barack Obama delivered his nomination acceptance speech.
Lebron James is here, despite rumors that he and Jay fell out over his decision to move to Miami. Also in attendance are Puff and his teenage son Justin- born just after his father was fired from Uptown Records and starting to build his run at Bad Boy- Puff's ex-boss Andre Harrell, Jay's sister-in-law, Solange Knwoles; and Kelly Rowland. Havoc from Mobb Deep, the lesser known target of Jay’s “Takeover,” whose partner, Prodigy, Jay once splashed over the Hot 97 Summer Jam screen, is here—a quiet nod to peacemaking and adulthood. Before joining Jay onstage, Beyoncé, Mary J. Blige, and Coldplay’s Chris Martin (accompanied by his wife Gwyneth Paltrow) all catch most of the historic night from the 40-foot-riser in center field.
Some 42,000 fans have paid good money to bear witness to history as the "Home to Home" tour wraps up in the Bronx. Baseball is in September elimination season, so the Yankees are at away games while Jay makes their home his. His good friend Alex Rodriguez, who flew to the Dominican Republic to bring in Jay’s 40th, is pissed he’s missing the big show. The fitted that the Yankees made in honor of Jay, who rhymed he "made the Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can" is on sale next to Jeter’s jersey.
Attempting to deny Jay-Z’s status as the greatest rapper is becoming an increasingly hard debate to win. Album after album, summer after summer, Jay has melted the opposition. He arrived in 1996, an era we only now understand to be a zenith in hip-hop. The field was stacked with talent. Lyricists were learning to craft pop hits, street artists were posting multiplatinum numbers and myths and legends were writing their history.
Tupac was recording what we now know to be a half a dozen albums in a prescient, inspired trance at a breakneck speed. Nas was promoting the follow-up to his classic Illmatic, Lauryn Hill was a superstar on the rise with mic skills that matched her poise as a vocalist. And Biggie, Jay’s friend and neighbor, had settled into the studio to record his cinematic magnum opus, Life After Death.
Like Mary, Big recognized real and hopped on Jay’s classic Reasonable Doubt, trading verses on “Brooklyn’s Finest”, one of the greatest collabos in rap. It would have been easy for a lesser MC to disappear in those charged times, no matter how nice he was with a mic. But Jay has always been a lot more than nice with a mic, and a lot bigger than an MC. From the beginning, he established himself as a boss; and not in some empty, braggadocio way that only means something over beats.
It was clear we were dealing with an awe-inspiring MC.
Jay could say in three bars what it took other writers three verses to communicate. (You draw, better be Picasso—y'know, the best/'Cause if this is not so, ah, God bless/You leave me no choice, I'll leave you no voice..." —"Friend of Foe.") What he didn’t say seemed as important as what he did, his pauses had gravity, he dealt with space like a hot block, dipping in and around a beat, painting a pictures with inflections as often as vocabulary. But when he decided to settle in, to paint a complete picture, it was pure authenticity. He presented the streets documentary style, and not as a narrator who’d witnessed the drama, but as a conductor who’d created the story. The hustler had become hip-hop’s everyman, and for good reason—the streets had employed kids in the hood the way the NYPD employs high school grads from Staten Island. Before Jay, those stories had been painted broadly. Jay filled in the details, and more importantly, profiled the psychic collateral damage of the lifestyle. Sure, a successful hustler could charter a yacht to sail the West Indies, but he’d have to lay awake at night wondering if the boat’s staff were undercover Feds. Paranoia, envy, greed and addiction were the price of success.
When Jay spoke of using his music as therapy, he created a space for black boys who’d been sketched in stats and sentences. He fearlessly opened up about being fatherless. At his most vulnerable he was acting as therapist: “People going thru pain/I’m just talking them thru it… I’m just walking ’em thru it.” He wrestled with regret, mourned fallen soldiers and bemoaned the disintegration of street codes of conduct. He searched for honor in dubious choices and admitted when he’d acted as a victim of his poverty, a painful admission for a man whose hallmark characteristic is his self-determination.
The last man standing, Jay carried hip-hop through its least inspired period. When labels shrank to a handful, when a once ever-expanding market began to tighten, when true talent was scarce, he threw the whole game on his back.
The idea for the book Decoded (Spiegel & Grau) began in 2005 when Jay decided that The Black Book, an autobiography that he and I worked on for two years, was too revelatory. His fans were deeply disappointed, hoping for Jay to relax his guard at last, to drop his obsessively private approach to being a pop star. Decoded began as him examining his lyrics, the metaphors and allusions, the double and triple entendres (as in Monster of the double entendre/Coke is still my sponsor" on Do U Wanna Ride.)
But it also became an exercise in historicization. By reflecting on what was going on when he wrote certain songs, he began to contextualize—his lyrics, the eras he's surfed, his legacy itself. That kind of reflection is usually saved for retirees, for artists whose best days are behind them.
That Jay was recording material that matched the best of his first on his eigth (The Black Album) was unheard of. That he did it again with his 10th (American Gangster), is nothing less than abusively unfair. He may—as he’s conceded—have given chorus-happy fans anthems when they needed them, but his intelligence has always served as a beacon, a sign that hip-hop is first and foremost a thinking man’s sport.
Hip-hop is a genre that's used musical samples as footnotes, constantly creating a catalog, looking back. But this idea of it minding its history, placing plastic on its good living room furniture, is fairly new. There are hip-hop museums being planned, anthologies and autobiographies being published every day. Like a 30-something who’s constantly rewriting their own obituary, hip hop seems to be worried about both its death and its long-standing desire to be taken seriously.
When we began collaborating on Decoded, Jay told his editor and I that he wanted to create a book that could be teachable. But hip-hop has to keep in check its desire to be taken "seriously" outside of its own terms. In a world that privileges written texts over oral traditions, hip-hop has to remember that it conquered the world with a mic as much as a pen. Jay's lyrics don't become more important because he wrote them down, but in writing them down the consummate freestyler demonstrates how thoughtful he's always been about this music, about his process.
Outside of the studio, Jay’s accomplishments have provided inconceivable inspiration. Sun Tzu, the author of The Art of War, once wrote that opportunities multiply as they are seized. In Jay we have a living example of the possibility of a life mapped by focus, purpose and direction. His moves on and off the mic, only reaffirm his grasp of that elusive thing Jay left his mom’s house as a teenager to pursue—power.
When Jay takes the stage at Yankee Stadium, he opens with the "Intro to The Dynasty", the 2000 album that became his Chronic when he made room on most tracks to pass the mic to his Rocafella team, Roc La Familia. Of that original unit only his wingman Bleek is still standing. Kanye West—who got his first real shine as a producer on Dynasty—felt trapped in a custody battle at the time of his label heads’ divorce. He joins Jay onstage for “Run This Town,” his oversized Horus medallion—the Egyptian god of Kings—crashing against a questionable fire red leather suit meant to signal his sartorial superiority.
Kanye, of course, is in the middle of his own rehabilitation, having squandered most of the good will that poured out after he lost his mother on the operating table. He’s risen from star producer status to become Santino to Jay’s Michael Corleone, trafficking in the same wild public emotional outbursts that made Tupac such a hero. Jay believes in Kanye, though—always has. He appreciates his protégé’s naked truth, the way Kanye examines his interior space aloud.
At its best, Jay’s music laid bare the inner psychological space of his generation’s everyman, the hustler; detailing his fear and guilt. Kanye is no drug dealer though. His man in the mirror is major celebrity in the age of persistent identity. And he’s as self-aware about that celebrity as Madonna.
Jay sharing this important stage with Kanye the same week he made his comeback penance performance at the MTV Awards is a major sign of support for his mentee. Jay won’t completely clear the stage for the next school by retiring, but he will lord over it while they vie for his spot. Kanye performs two of his own songs, “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” and “Good Life,” before launching into “Monster.” Lil Wayne, another contender for the crown, is of course across the river on Riker’s on this night, but Jay lets Young Money’s other stars, Drake and Nicki Minaj,
have a decent part of his set too. “You could be the King but watch the Queen conquer,” Nicky spits during “Monster,” stuffed into a pair of painted on jeans.
At 40, Jay avoids coming off as “Uncle Hov” to this newest school, still in their 20s, mostly because he shows up on guest appearances in perfect shape. On Drake’s “Light Up” Jay Godfathers young Drake—an unlikely heir given his straight-and-narrow path to the top (but in the Obama era, a superstar because of his straight-and-narrow path to the top). It’s unlikely Jay will ever need to talk him out of jail, but his advice to Drake about success couldn’t be more perfect: “here’s how they gon come at you / With silly rap feuds trying to distract you / In disguise in the form of a favor / The Barzini meeting, watch for the traitors / Uhh, and I’ve seen it all, done it all…”
Which begs the question, as someone who’s seen and done it all—whose steady reign at the top has seen sensational contenders explode then sputter (50 Cent)or at least stumble (Eminem)—what’s truly left for Jay to do?
As Jay likes to say, “I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Beyoncé, still in the dangerously tight sequined minidress she wore onstage when she joined Jay to perform “Young Forever,” is sitting on the black leather couch in Jay's private green room, watching him wrap the final night of his and Eminem’s "Home to Home" tour at Yankee Stadium with “Encore,” a Kanye West–produced track from The Black Album. He's ended big nights like this before. With its roaring chorus and audience participation, “Encore” is a sure shot. When Jay recorded the song at Bass Line Studios, he was visualizing live arena shows. “Encore” was meant to be his goodbye kiss, but his victory lap at Madison Square Garden was seven years ago—back when he and Mrs. Carter were merely dating and she had just one solo album under her belt. “For one last time I need y’all to roar,” he commands, and the crowd does not disappoint. Jay’s onstage like he never left it, mostly because he never did.
Jay stands still, taking the moment in, the all-epic-everything of the night, the roundtrip hip-hop has taken, around the world and back here in the Bronx, onstage in center field at Yankee Stadium, Kool Herc in the first few rows. He is overwhelmed by emotion. Beneath his fitted Yankees cap, Jay is nodding, tucking his upper lip in the way he usually does, that way that says, "Don't make me shoot you." But beneath his brim you can see him getting misty.
"Yeah, I almost lost it," Jay says the next day about tearing up onstage in front of his wife and most of New York City. For him the night was not just about the roaring adoration of his fans, but the connection to what he calls again and again in Decoded, his “culture.” In the end it’s all about how far rap’s come, how much the game needs him, and how much he needs it.