|GRANTLAND.com: Hollywood Prospectus|
In one corner you have your hard-core hip-hop heads; the type for whom the true Jay-Z will forever be that gifted 25-year-old with rapid-fire flow, trading verses with the visionary teenager Big L — "I'm so ahead of my time, my parents haven't met yet!" — on a "rare" (easily dug up on YouTube) seven-minute freestyle from 1995. Meanwhile, over here stands the pop-rap fan. She loves the Jiggaman with his passion for the Empire State Building and bold claims to "Run This Town."
And now that rap's reached this unprecedented level of cultural acceptance, maybe we're finally free to celebrate the form without needing to continually defend it. Say that I'm foolish I only talk about jewels/Do you fools listen to music or do you just skim through it? He's not so sure.
Life stories told through rap/N----s actin' like I sold you crack/Like I told you sell drugs, no, Hov' did that/So hopefully you won't have to go through that. But can't a rapper insist, like other artists, on a fictional reality, in which he is somehow still on the corner, despite occupying the penthouse suite? Out hustlin', same clothes for days/I'll never change, I'm too stuck in my ways.
Biggie had better boasts, Tupac dropped more knowledge, Eminem is — as "Renegade" demonstrated — more formally dexterous. But Hova's the all-rounder. His albums are showrooms of hip-hop, displaying the various possibilities of the form. The persona is cool, calm, almost frustratingly self-controlled: "Yeah, 50 Cent told me that one time. He said: 'You got me looking like Barksdale and you get to be Stringer Bell!"
Jay-Z started out pyrotechnical. Extremely fast, stacked, dense. But time passed and his flow got slower, opened up. Why? 'I didn't have enough life experience, so I was trying to impress technically. To do things that other people cannot do. Like, you can't do this' — insert beat-box and simultaneous freestyle here — "you just can't do that." Nope. Can't even think of a notation to demonstrate what he just did.
At times he restricts himself formally, like the Oulipo, that experimental French literary group of the 1960s. In the song "22 Two's," from 1996, we get 22 delicious plays on the words "too" and "two." Ten years later, the sequel, "44 Fours," has the same conceit, stepped up a gear.
In the years since his masterpiece "Reasonable Doubt," the rapper has often been accused of running on empty, too distant now from what once made him real.
At the last minute, I remembered to ask after his family, "Oh, my family's amazing." And the baby? "She's four months." Marcy raised me, and whether right or wrong/Streets gave me all I write in the song.