Sometimes I Rap Fast, Sometimes I Rap Slow: The Evolution Of JAY-Z’s Flow (Food For Thought)

As another NFL season loads up, the sports news cycle is dominated by teams, offenses, depth charts and injury reports. Although not a fan (au contraire), I often marvel at the dynamic strategies of Bill Bellichick, Tom Brady, and the New England Patriots.

From season-to-season, the three-time Super Bowl champions reinvent their offense, from run-game, to pass-game, in-the-pocket and out, with different strengths and characters emerging based on the resources they have in place. What worked two years ago may have gone unseen last season, only to reappear at a critical juncture in the season ahead.

While it’s hard for me to compare things I love to things that I don’t, I can draw a parallel to Jay Z. One of my favorite voices, on and off record, has found many different methods to provide his knowledge, wisdom, inspiration, and pencil-thin-truth-meet-fiction over the last 20-plus years. On the heels of Magna Carta Holy Grail and its conversation-monopolizing release, perhaps we spend too much time looking at what Jay says, and not how he says it.

It wasn’t until the last three years that I heard the term “choppin’.” I knew the expression of “choppers” long before Diddy sent Young City and company out for cheesecakes. To me, choppin’ is usually something that comes to mind when I think about Large Professor, Buckwild and DJ Premier production. However, becoming a fan of Tech N9ne, I learned that MC’s have been choppin’ for years.

Choppin’ is a Midwestern slang-term for fast-rapping, that uses syllables and syncopated deliveries to accent the delivery. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony or Twista & The Speedknot Mobstaz are undoubtedly choppers. Eminem, another Midwest artist, is one of the greats. However, when you think of these type of MC’s, one artist that probably doesn’t come to mind, but should is Jay Z.

Personally speaking, I remember first hearing Jay Z on Big Daddy Kane’s “Show & Prove.” Too young to ever see the “Hawaiian Sophie” video play off of its own merits, it was that Daddy’s Home appearance that really hit me. Jay dabbled in the Fu-Schnickens/Das EFX word-bending flow, but had the flare and rugged street confidence that was more akin to Kane, Lord Finesse or Akinyele.

When you listen to the Jay Z leading up to his acclaimed 1995 debut Reasonable Doubt, you hear something very different than what we hear 18 years later on Magna Carta Holy Grail. I’m not speaking of tales of sales and pink Champales, but rather that multi-syllabic fast-rap flow that shows Hov as a product of his times.

If you want to hear Jay’s true entrance with a dazzling flow, it was his appearance 23 years ago on Jaz-O’s sophomore LP, To Your Soul. The 1990 single “The Originators” was all about the flow that Jay would sharpen, develop and stuff with interesting content, and intricate cadences leading up to his debut. Between 1990 and 1994, Jay’s appearances and Stretch & Bobbito freestyles had him sounding more (stylistically) like his contemporaries in Big L and Pharoahe Monch than say, Nas or Prodigy.

Something interesting happened leading up to Reasonable Doubt. With a changing sound-scape in New York City, Jay Z (still with an umlaut) focused on content more than delivery. His wisdom and smoothness of “Dead Presidents II” or driving annunciation on “D’Evils” were stylistic choices, as the quick machine-gun flow was channeled in “22 Two’s,” but never to the extent we heard it a year prior with Kane and Original Flavor.

In the mid-1990s, Jay Z helped trademark an effortless flow of narration. From his sophomore album, “Where I’m From” feels less like rapping than it does rhyming-talking, the ultimate voice-over to a film you can imagine off of experience.

In a career that defies stagnation, Jay brought it full circle nearly five years later. 1998’s Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life was a Brooklyn play on the growing popularity of Southern-production in Hip Hop. Balancing his signature inclusions from DJ Premier and Puffy’s Hitmen, Jigga enlisted Timabaland, whose beats had challenged the flows rappers brought to radio at the time, courtesy of Missy Elliott. “Nigga What, Nigga Who? (Originator 99)” lived up to its name eight years later, inviting “Big Jaz” (as he was then-known) to the track for a lyrical exhibition of speed and style. Similarly, with Atlanta-based impersario (oops, my bad, that’s impresario) Jermaine Dupri on “Money Ain’t A Thang.” From outside the projects with Kane to racing Ferraris and Porsches with JD, Jay brought his flow with him for five years, using it when necessary, and with synths and a chorus, making a radio hit when he was unable with Payday, Big Beat/Atlantic and Cold Chillin’/Warner Bros. singles in years prior.

For one of the fastest rappers, Jay Z could also challenge then-kings Ma$e and Silkk The Shocker as one of the slowest. On Vol. 3’s “Some Like It (Hot),” Jay’s delivery rivaled a chopped-and-screwed flow. This was the same album as “Big Pimpin’,” a time when Jay also made “Hey Papi” (all three Timbo tracks, mind you). Is that what makes Jay so special? The same MC who is unafraid to deliver “Ignorant Shit” and maintain friendships with Presidents is the same guy who can channel all of his influences. It makes sense after all, when you consider the sonic range of Jay’s albums, and yet how he makes them cohesive.

Few albums in Jay Z’s catalog are more definitive and cohesive than The Black Album. Late 2003 was defined by Jay’s eighth solo LP, an album designed to be an a la carte walk-through of Jay’s many movements throughout the previous decade and change. Initially planned to include involvement from DJ Premier, Ski Beatz and Irv Gotti, the shape of the mysterious exit-album changed greatly with the burgeoning sound coming from Baseline and Roc The Mic Studios, courtesy of Just Blaze and Kanye West. Still reeling from The Blueprint sound. Often compared against Reasonable Doubt, this effort was a return to form in Jay’s talk-rapping. You can hear, learn and repeat the knowledge as he guides you through his mantras on “PSA,” “Moment Of Clarity” and “Justify My Thug.”

Often viewed more as the leading star and the producer of his audio-films than a director, Jay Z’s Black Album exodus was simply great directing. Like Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, Jay went back to his classic canon (in terms of sound, content and style) when it was most needed. “My First Song,” “Threat” and “Encore” were not choppin’, but had flashes of the lyrical chutes and ladders that made Jay so great on his debut.

In the interim between The Black Album and Jay’s sneak-attack return Kingdom Come, the artist focused on his “business, man” legacy. Leaving the Roc, Jay sat at the end of the table at Def Jam Records and worked with the cabinet that introduced Rick Ross and Young Jeezy to stardom, and by way of Graduation, helped put Kanye West on the escalator to uber-fame. Lyrically, in the three years away from album-making, Jay’s appearances were scarce, treated with an attention to detail seemingly greater than any MC before him. “Dear Summer,” “Diamonds Are Forever Remix,” and “Hustlin’ Remix” were not at all about flow. They were Howard Hughes sightings that detailed Jay’s internal state of the union, his commentary on Hip Hop, and reminders that while he was appearing in magazines in three-piece suits, he still could pull somebody by the collar.

When Jay reappeared in album-form late 2006, with Kingdom Come, his once muscle-car delivery had turned into a Sunday cruiser. “Lost Ones,” “Oh My God,” and “30 Something” were slow, “hear-myself-think” deliveries that sounded much more Fat Joe than Big Pun. Perhaps Jay was challenging the medium of Rap, especially after watching the era’s leaders like T.I., Rick Ross and Jeezy effortlessly make slow-motion Hip Hop smashes. However, despite the expected sales, I personally think Jay felt the criticism and lackluster bond fans made with his ninth solo. Across the Def Jam hallways, Nas, who had declined in sales for an immortalized status with fans and Rap critics, was besting Jay critically with his own Hip-Hop Is Dead album. It was conceptual, grimy, and despite the added figures in the bankbook, pulled Jay’s former foe from Queens as close as possible to his Extra P, Kool G. Rap and MC Serch roots.

Between 2006 and 2007, I think is the critical juncture in Jay’s delivery. Leading up to American Gangster in late ’07, Jay outlined an album that was conceptual, grimy and closer to a fan’s wish-list (sound familiar?). Insiders speculated (at least Peedi Crakk), that Jay “borrowed” former protégé, Young Chris’ flow, complete with timing and whispers. The onetime Young Gunz member deflected reports of this, but Chris remained in Jay’s cabinet at a time when he was slowly distancing himself from many of his former Roc-A-Fella Records artists. Whether true or not, the once deadpan delivery of Jay was more charismatic, and his cadences shifted greatly. He stretched words out at the end (see “Sweet,”) and then promptly transitioned back into his speed-changing delivery.

This approach was really fine-tuned by 2009’s The Blueprint III. Rather than his one seamless narration that just happened to rhyme, Jay really focused on bars and pauses. “On To The Next One,” (a song that possibly explains the whole point here?) along with “D.O.A.” had a fragmented delivery. No more choppin’, just choppy, as Jay’s words were broken down and rolled out in small, simple lines. Peppy at times, his delivery showed a range in vocal presentation.  It was a long way from the deadpan delivery on “Can’t Knock The Hustle,” or the energetic word-flips of M.O.P.’s “4 Alarm Blaze” 11 years earlier. Like his transitions from white tees to throwbacks to open-toed-sandals (as Cam’ron famously observed), Jay Z had very much gone out with the old, in with the new to punctuate 10 albums deep—not counting the R. Kelly projects, soundtracks and compilations. Whether rollin’ with Chris or J. Cole had anything to do with this, the world may know, but nobody (besides Peedi) is talking.

Whether or not State Property had anything to do with the evolution of Jay’s flow in 2007-2010, another Roc-A-Fella artist, and Jay Z’s star pupil-meets-little brother certainly affected him through creative osmosis the last two years.

2011’s Watch The Throne, Jay Z’s first collaborative album with another rapper, paired him with Kanye West. While Jay maintained his fragmented delivery from the previous two albums, he picked up the pace a bit. While Jay had always implemented pauses in his flow, he seemed to be even more deliberate—a trait recently re-popularized by ‘Ye, Drake and the burgeoning Big Sean. Paired with one of his renaissance producers from The Blueprint a decade ago, Jay slid in some of that choppin’ (see “Why I Love You” or “H.A.M.”). One of Hip-Hop’s most quoted artists in his early days, once again re-fashioned his delivery to make his words re-purposed, moving into #HashtagRap, complete with new-watch-alerts, and “Bitch, be-have’s.”

One listen to “Beach Is Better” from Magna Carta Holy Grail, it’s clear that Jay’s going even further in his latest creative direction. While the latest solo album from Brooklyn’s own has (polarizing) lyrical content unlike any other Jay album, the flow is also moving with it. Jay’s experimenting with fragments again, but defying convention in how songs are presented (see “Crown”). One of the masters of Hip-Hop’s ceremony appears unafraid to maintain that freestyle-sound, even if he’s waxing poetic at a slower pace.

Few rappers have ever weathered more storms than Jay Z. Next year will mark Jay’s 25th year on wax, since the days of “Hawaiian Sophie.” He’s been a leader, associated with movements of lyricism, Gangsta Rap, genre crossovers, and most recently, Art Rap. At a time of #NewRules, Jay knows that while some of his peers make throwback albums, sequels or appear stuck in the convenient boxes made by fans, he must move forward. Innovate or perish. Certainly, not all of the movements have been praised.

However, maybe Jay knows something us lay-folk overlook. His flow of the last four years, synthesized to slower fragments, hash-tag appeal, and dripped in name-brand exposure–is that what the modern Hip-Hop fan, or just modern listener wants? Does Jay’s own evolution suggest a shift from style to substance, and perhaps back to a completely different style?

On that same “Show & Prove” single that introduced me to Jay Z, Kane rapped, “And let’s just make one more thing understood / That if I fart on a record, trust me nigga, it’ll sound good.” Not in the least implying that Jay’s Decod-able lyrics of late are flatulence, but in 2013, we are testing the sonic waters, with ad-libs, screaming and a whole lot of extra chatter on records.  Jay may sense our own A.D.H.D. He knows how to dumb it down, when he’d prefer to rap like Common Sense.

Related: Young-Ye: How Jay-Z and Kanye West Made the World Watch the Throne (Again) and Saved Hip-Hop in the Process (Food for Thought)