Jay-Z has been performing since 1995, but it was the release of his album Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life in 1998 that began to cement his commercial success. The year of that album’s release coincided with the year that Total Request Live began airing on MTV, and the video for “Can I Get A…” by Jay-Z (featuring Amil and Ja Rule) appeared on the show just six weeks after the show’s television premiere.
Younger members of the MTV Generation began to see a shift in the way rap was portrayed by mainstream television. Rap had always been around, but it was rare for an artist with lyrics as occasionally aggressive as Jay-Z’s to become veritable pop hits prior to the new millennium. Popular music of the generation usually ran the gamut from Korn to the Backstreet Boys, and Jay-Z somehow managed to appeal to fans of both.
Even more impressive is that twenty years later, Jay-Z’s appeal has not really died down. Throughout his career, he’s recorded a number of hits such as “’03 Bonnie & Clyde” (a collaboration with Beyoncé Knowles, his future wife), “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” “99 Problems,” “On to the Next One” and “Empire State of Mind” to name just a few. He’s also performed with a wide array of other stars. No matter which rap stars are popular during a given year, there’s generally a fair chance they’ve performed with Jay-Z.
Jay-Z has always worked at refining the flow of his lyrics, but the actual lyrical content itself is what makes him attractive to many listeners. He is incredibly versatile, and he is able to manipulate just about any message into a catchy beat, whether it’s a song with relatively deep meaning (some believe “On to the Next One” is a critique on capitalism as well as creative output) or a song that’s just meant to be memorable on a more shallow basis (such as “99 Problems”). Whether or not the song itself is meant to be serious, there’s generally something exceedingly intelligent about Jay-Z’s approach to it.
This intelligence has served Jay-Z well in the music business. Like other stars such as Usher and Sean Combs, Jay-Z has learned to become an excellent businessman as well as an excellent rapper. This can be seen especially through his work as executive producer on the soundtrack for the 2013 film The Great Gatsby and his work as producer on the 2014 remake of Annie.
Jay-Z is a rarity in the world of rap music. He does not possess as much ego as some rappers, yet he is highly self-aware at the same time. In his 2010 memoir, Decoded, he writes about many of his lyrics and the stories that inspired them. The fact that his intelligence is one of the key factors that makes his music unique is not lost on him, and he does not shy away from discussing his lyrics and the motivations behind them. Instead, he plays into the very thing that has driven his success, choosing to share the details of his intellectual inspirations with his fans.
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