By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of Cristal, it was the age of imaginary players, it was the epoch of money, cash and hoes, it was the epoch of reasonable doubt, it was the season of cashmere thoughts, it was the season of politics as usual, it was the spring of big pimping, it was the winter of so ghetto, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to MTV, we were all going direct the other way--in short, the period was so far like the present period that some of its wackest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
It's no lie. In the brash, cock-strut of hip-hop, Jay-Z, né Shawn Carter, is that most peculiar of personalities. He glided gilded out of Brooklyn in the mid-'90s. But the gold wasn't just looped around his neck or running 'round his fingers. It was on the page. With his 1996 debut, Jay-Z served one-line aces like Pete Sampras, and in the few cases when a line didn't score a winner, he came to the net to hammer a verbal volley that left his mouth and flew by your head. All you could do was watch him school your ass. He packed more rhymes in a sentence than Dr. Suess. Only his green ham and eggs were street beats with teeth, verbal flourishes that were downright Dickensian. You can't knock his hustle.
No hyperbole here. Trouble was, verbal sophistication only tickled critics. Radio wanted something with a more accessible savoir fare. So Jay-Z pulled a David Copperfield. Personal experience became his palette, and he delivered it in language that everybody could easily understand. He toned down the angular scheming for some straight-up misdemeaning. The rhymes became a tad less ornate as the beats became more bumping. And when he married his street hassle with a snippet from the musical Annie, he finally found his recipe for success. "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)" was criminal-minded vernacular with a Broadway production's appeal. And once it dominated airwaves, Jay-Z wanted to repeat its omnipotence. Again and again and again.
Thus far, he's been able to do just that. He cranks out hit singles and albums as steadily as Jimmy Dean makes sausage. And he's not stopping there. Like any number of hip-hop entrepreneurs, Jay-Z's got a label, a clothing line and yet another new album on the racks. The Blueprint--with the white hot "IZZO (H.O.V.A.)" and what may be Eminem's most audaciously loquacious delivery on his guest spot of "Renegade"--shows Jay-Z is angling to retain his reign. The rest of his crew hasn't connected with the same success, but Jay-Z, by sheer charisma alone, has taken Roc-a-fella out of the bleak house and into the big time. But you have to wonder how long he can keep it going.