Whenever rap aficionados debate this stuff (and they do love to debate this stuff), there’s a temptation to award the title to either a veteran that established the template for what lyricism should be (Rakim), a titan that blew up the template and rewrote the rules for what hip-hop could achieve (Notorious B.I.G.), a rapper’s rapper type regarded by hardcore fans for his obscene levels of technical skill (Pharoahe Monch) or the most commercially successful (Eminem.) But when you break the qualifications for Greatest Of All Time down by category—longevity, commercial success, number of classic albums and hit singles, technical prowess, storytelling, ability to make the listener laugh or cry on a dime, live show and stylistic influence, then it’s Jay-Z. Hands down. He might not be the top in every single category, but he’s been in the game long enough to score high enough across the board.
So it’s basically a scientific fact that he’s the best.
Jay's dominance has become so established that some fans grumble that he's taken all the fun out of the debate. Not that Jay would have it any other way. As he says on “Hater,” “Name one thing that I ain’t done/it hurts when you say I ain’t the one.” He’s gone out of his way to make sure we know he’s the greatest, even if he’s had to ruffle some feathers. (To put it lightly.)
What do you mean?
At the start of the 2000s, Jay had already released a debut album, Reasonable Doubt, that was considered a classic and had successfully crossed over into the pop charts with hits like “Hard Knock Life” and “Big Pimpin'.” To Jay, this was a paltry state of affairs. It’s hard to imagine someone more miserable.
Sampling the musical Annie rubbed some hardcore hip-hop heads the wrong way, and he had to deal with accusations that he had placed success before skills. Worse, Jay felt that despite his success, he still wasn’t getting the respect he deserved. He also had some legal problems—he pleaded guilty to stabbing record producer Lance “Un” Rivera for allegedly selling bootlegs of his album Vol. 3... Life and Times of S. Carter. He received three years probation.
So what did he do?
He recorded The Blueprint. The 2001 LP is widely hailed as one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time (it received the rare "five mics" rating from the Source, and Pitchfork later named it the fifth best album of the decade) and the best starting point for new fans, though last year’s The Hits Collection, Volume One would work also. The Blueprint saw Jay-Z tighten up and streamline. He worked with just a handful of producers (Timbaland, Just Blaze and a then-unknown guy named Kanye West), and, responding to criticism that he was letting his albums get too cluttered, included only one guest-rapper (Eminem, on the song “Renegade”). Jay’s producers brought him a top-flight serving of tracks that mixed chopped-up samples of soul greats Al Green and Jackson 5 with gritty beats. Lyrically, Jay divided his time between making party smashes like “Girls Girls Girls” and “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)", and introspective songs like “Song Cry,” where he detailed the heartache caused by the hustler’s life and proved what an intricate lyricist he is. Just for good measure, and in case this didn’t fully cement his place as the best rapper around, Jay famously included “Takeover," a dis track that accused rival Nas of “a one hot album every ten year average." This led to a lyrical feud between the two that captured significant media attention and solidified the idea that Jay-Z was rap’s official ruler. It even helped inspire a career resurgence for Nas. Jay, ever a canny operator, later signed Nas to his label.
So how did he get so good?
Sean Carter was a bright but troubled child. His father abandoned him when he was young, and he later sold cocaine for local gangs. He already wanted to become a rapper, but said that he didn’t have time to write down the rhymes he was coming up with while he was dealing, so he forced himself to commit them to memory. This put him in the mindset to create detailed, fluid raps that reflected his rough upbringing, and yet felt nimble enough to sound like they came off the top of his head. Astoundingly, as complex as his lyrics get, Jay claims that he has never written any thing down before heading to the booth.
Where does his name come from?
The name is a nod to his mentor, a rapper producer named Jaz-O. (The two later had a falling out over business matters, but Jay still credits him for his success.) It’s also supposed to be a reference to the J and Z subway lines that ran through the Marcy Houses housing projects in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, where he grew up. His frequent nickname Hova is short for J-Hova, a reference to Jehovah, because he’s so good he’s like the God of rap. You going to argue?
Doesn’t he own a basketball team?
In addition to perfecting the mix between artistic and commercial success, Jay-Z has also pioneered the art of turning one’s rap career into the starting point for a global empire. He owns part of the New York Nets. He founded the record labels Roc-A-Fella and his current home Roc Nation, which is part of a lucrative partnership with the promotions company Live Nation, and the clothing company Rocawear, which he later sold for more than $200 million. He ran the iconic Def Jam record label for a while, and is a brand director for Budweiser Select. He owns several nightclubs and other real estate holdings, and is considering getting into the luxury hotel business. As if this was not enough, he campaigned for President Barack Obama, worked with the United Nations to raise awareness of water shortage and has grown into one of the hip-hop’s premiere concert attractions, earning rave reviews for headlining spots at music festivals such as Bonnaroo and Coachella. For his efforts, Forbes put him on their “400 Richest Americans” issue alongside super-investor Warren Buffet, one of the two or three wealthiest people in the world.
So why haven’t he and his wife Beyoncé had a baby already?
Beyoncé’s mom wonders the same thing, apparently. Hey, what do you want from him? He’s a busy guy.