My brother called me yesterday while I was sitting at work. “Yo, what are people saying about this new Hov and Push? Because I’m losing my fucking mind,” he said. I told him that the office’s reaction was more positive compared to the remix for “All the Way Up,” but there was much nitpicking of Jay’s verse going on, especially his Google and “Damn Daniel” references. My brother laughed it off and asked, “What more do they want from him? The ‘Damn Daniel’ line was hard, fuck outta here.”
This is the same question I ask myself when fans and critics dissect Jay Z’s bars anytime he appears on a younger rapper’s record. The peanut gallery clowned Jay for his weak “cake” lines on Drake’s “Pound Cake” in 2013; Drizzy stans damn near gave their man the crown because of a clown nose sound effect. But what does a less than perfect verse really say about Jay’s ability, at the age of 46? Should he still be expected to live up to the hype he built for himself? If Drake is supposed to be in his prime, shouldn’t he be able to hold his own against a past-his-prime veteran?
The same could be said about Kendrick Lamar’s effort on the remix to his song “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe,” which dropped that same year.
Except in that case, the young lion admitted to spending an entire day crafting his verses after hearing Jigga’s messianic flow over his song: “When I heard that thing he sent back, I said to myself, ‘I can’t be no floozy on this motherfucker for sure.’” These young bucks should be wiping the floor with him, yet, one of the top rappers in the game had to make sure his bars were as good as Jay Z’s to the point where he spent an entire day writing them.
In 2003, on what was supposed to be his last album, Jay Z rapped about his successful longevity in the first verse of “What More Can I Say?,” boasting, “There’s never been a nigga this good for this long.” He was right then, and even more so 13 years later. What other rappers—besides maybe Scarface, Nas, and Ghostface Killah—could reasonably make that claim? (If I’m missing anybody, forgive me, those three names are the first to come to mind.)
To put Hova’s longevity in perspective, he’s 46—Big Daddy Kane is 47 and KRS-One is 50. Jay has been an active participant in hip-hop since the late ‘80s. Kane and KRS haven’t made music to talk about in a minute, proving Jigga is the exception, not the rule. Like athletes, rappers lose their touch after a while. The sharpness of a flow fades the same way explosive hops do.
He lauded himself up to be the God MC—“El Gran Santo on the mantle”—and we hold him to that claim even years past his prime.
But the tone Jay set for most of his career doesn’t exactly encourage a nuanced evaluation of his abilities beyond pure exaltation. He lauded himself up to be the God MC—“El Gran Santo on the mantle”—and we hold him to that claim even years past his prime. Michael Jordan, who Jigga frequently compares himself to, retired for the second time before returning to basketball three years later to average 20 points or better at ages 38 and 39. Kobe Bryant, at 37, dug down deep to score 60 points in the final game in his storied career.
The flow is a bit rusty but as he continues to flex his lyrical muscles, that’ll change. He’s the OG at the YMCA that you can’t stop from scoring, no matter what you do. Jigga has that old man strength these days, that abuelo grip. This is Jay Z in 2016, meme references and all. So, do we let him live? Or do we tell a 46-year-old former great to hang it up?
This is the predicament rap fans are in. I, for one, don’t feel like a new album is necessary. The only thing Jay has to prove is that he still has it, and judging by his latest two guest appearances, he does. For someone who has opened up so many doors and given so many rappers the blueprint for success, he sure does get a lot of hate from fans. Like a friend told me last night, “If you hate on Jigga, you hate on yourself.”
People are free to criticize who and whatever they want, and some feel that if Jay still wants to play the game, he has to come godly or not at all. But if we’re all so hung up on heeding Jay’s words, we shouldn’t forget what the God MC predicted in that Hot 97 studio back in 2006:
“Same sword they knight you they gon’ good night you with/Thats’ only half if they like you/That ain’t even the half what they might do/Don’t believe me, ask Michael/See Martin, see Malcolm/You see Biggie, see Pac, see success and its outcome/See Jesus, see Judas; see Caesar, see Brutus/See success is like suicide.”
Go back into his catalog and you will find numerous references to what he’s going through today. He knows that his late-career reality is polarizing, and still he puts himself out there for the likes of us to love or hate whatever he has to say and how he says it. Maybe there’s a new album coming, or maybe he’s letting his creative juices flow just because he can. I think he’s earned that much.