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Ryan Buell | This Week in Hip-Hop

The Jay-Z paradox

Published: Monday, October 28, 2013

Updated: Monday, October 28, 2013 01:10

Jay-Z is one of the most influential figures in hip-hop and pop culture. One of the driving forces in hip-hop’s transition to the mainstream and a must-mention in any “greatest rapper of all-time” conversation, “Jay-Hova” has become a ubiquitous cultural icon. His music and his presence have helped shape the evolution of hip-hop, establishing long-lasting trends within the genre.

Since his musical debut “Reasonable Doubt” in 1996, Jay has consistently continued to achieve both commercial and critical success. “Reasonable Doubt” was a landmark street album — eventually going platinum — and became recognized as a seminal record in hip-hop history. Its successors — “In My Lifetime, Vol. 1” (1997) and its sequel “Vol. 2 ... Hard Knock Life” (1998) — helped Jay to further transcend regional and street appeal, propelling him further into the limelight. “Vol. 2” debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 and produced four singles — including the highly successful “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem).” It is one of the 20 best-selling hip-hop albums of all time and drew unprecedented mainstream attention to the genre.

From there, Jay-Z continued carving through the hip-hop scene, releasing successful album after successful album. “The Blueprint” was released in 2001 and “The Black Album” came out two years later: Both were heralded as instant classics, debuted at number one and went on to achieve multi-platinum status. “Blueprint” alone changed the entire hip-hop landscape. The album’s production relied on samples of old soul and jazz songs. Prior to “Blueprint,” sampling was an out-of-favor practice within hip-hop — today, it is a widely used technique that some artists have built their entire sound around. It’s safe to say that Jay-Z truly laid “The Blueprint” for the future of hip-hop.

There can be no arguing his profound impact on the game — Jay has produced 13 number one albums, second only to The Beatles. He brought hip-hop into the average American household. However, with such enormous success came certain negative implications. Jay proclaimed on “The Black Album” that he “dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars.” For Hova, this meant making his music accessible to the masses, beyond the traditional hip-hop fan base. He didn’t need lyrical complexity to make superb music. Unfortunately, this practice became standard for mainstream hip-hop. “Dumbed down” hip-hop became the formula for success. This spawned the “dead” era of hip-hop in the mid-2000s — a time when Soulja Boy and Chingy became platinum-selling artists. Jay’s model was mimicked by less talented artists. Suddenly, the only thing needed to achieve radio success was a catchy beat and hook — lyricism took a backseat to club anthems.

The now-common practice of releasing an album every year originated in similar fashion. Jay produced an album every year from 1996 to 2003 and achieved greater success with each release. Prior to him, most artists (including Nas and Outkast) released albums every two years at most. Labels, seeing Jay’s skyrocketing profits, began to encourage yearly releases and constant visibility. This was an unsustainable formula for the majority of artists, ultimately leading to creative burnout. From Lil Wayne to 50 Cent, countless artists saw their music suffer at the expense of regularity. This effect, combined with the “dumbed down” trend, severely damaged the quality of hip-hop music for many years, and its ramifications are still pervasive today, if less so.

Ironically, despite all of his success and achievements, Jay-Z has contributed to the rise of several problems within hip-hop. He may be one of the best hip-hop artists of all time, but his influence has also had negative implications that are generally unrecognized. In short, he is both the best and worst thing that has ever happened to hip-hop.

 

Ryan Buell is a sophomore who has not yet declared a major. He can be reached at Ryan.Buell@tufts.edu.

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