Jay Z Becomes The First Rapper In The Songwriters Hall Of Fame
While Jay Z is a man of many “firsts” on the business side, his artistry is what allowed him to be in that position. All 15 of Jay’s solo and collaborative albums are platinum, in many cases multiple. He has 13 #1 releases, including his 2004 Collision Course EP with Linkin Park. Jay has one #1 (2009’s “Empire State of Mind”) on his own, and is a featured act on three more (courtesy of Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, and Rihanna, chronologically).
It is with that rich craft, that stems back more than 30 years, that Hova earned the first slot by a Hip-Hop artist in the Songwriting Hall of Fame. This morning (February 22), Nile Rodgers of Chic announced the 2017 inductees on CBS This Morning. Jay Z will join the likes of producers/members of The Time Jimmy Jim & Terry Lewis, Babyface, Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, and writers from the band Chicago.
Notably, in a hall for songwriters, Jay Z admitted to MTV in 2007 that he’s written nothing down since 1996’s “Can I Live.” “What happened was, I was doing that song with someone else, and they heard the first verse and they was like, ‘Man, you take that song. Finish it, ’cause it sounds like you got a lot more to say,’ ” Jay said. “You know, that type of thing. So I just wanted to get it down quick, I didn’t want to keep going over it. It was like [the album’s] mastering time, so I just sat down in the booth and wrote that [verse].”
In time, according to producer/onetime associate Irv Gotti, Jay began taking notes into the recording booth with him as an aid. After “Can I Live,” this became his go-to method. In 2007, the MC revealed that he first intended to write The Black Album on paper. However, as that progressed, Jay returned to his post-1996 formula. “It just felt better [the way I do it now],” Jay said. “In my mind, I said, ‘OK, I’m gonna sit down and I’ma just write it and really do this thing a certain way.’ But your natural process is your process. It’s difficult to go back to what you was doing when you was 15, 16 years old. My process is different now. It sounds great on paper, like ‘I’ma sit down, I’m going to write the entire album like I did before.’ But once you get back in the studio and you’ve been doing this process for years and years now, so it just felt natural to do it the way I’ve been doing it: no paper, no pen, just listen to the music.”
Despite the accomplishments stated above, some of Jay’s finest songwriting stems from verses that may have missed the charts entirely. The Brooklyn, New Yorker and founder of Roc Nation campaigned the Rap album as an end-to-end body of work in the era when sales often eclipsed content, and singles stood high above the sum of their parts. There is no such thing as “album cuts” with Jay Z, as songs like “PSA,” “Friend Or Foe,” and “A Star Is Born” have taken on lives of their own beyond the label machine. These songs are Decoded in Jay’s texts, and performed in concert decades after they were wedged between what was given to the radio.
In one fairly recent overseas interview, Jay discussed his talent as “telling the truth in rhyme, and connecting to a disenfranchised group of people.” He added, “The detail and the emotions in the songs I [rap] just connect to people all over. Take a song like ‘Hard Knock Life,’ which was a Broadway play [anthem]. To turn that into a song on a rapper’s album is not typical, right? But what’s typical is the emotion of what’s being sang in the chorus: ‘instead of treated, we get tricked / Instead of kisses, we get kicked.‘ That’s a worldwide emotion, right? Everyone wants to root for the underdog, whether it’s an orphan [Annie] or a lil’ Black guy from Marcy that’s runnin’ around with drug dealers.”
In that same interview, he said, “I don’t write. I used to write when I was young. I would write for hours and hours on end. That stream of conscious comes to you whether you sit at the table [and write] or not. So as I started moving into the streets, I started moving further and further away from my notebook. So I would memorize these words and have to run to the house to write them down. When you do that, you work up your memory. My memory was getting stronger and stronger. After a while, I was retaining four and five songs at a time; I lost plenty of material [too].” In that interview, Jay connects certain verses to certain resulting songs. “Give It To Me,” for instance, stemmed from a Mary J. Blige party.
Within Jay Z’s catalog, gems include Reasonable Doubt closer “Regrets.” While Shawn Carter is often revered for his hard-to-crack image, that 1996 track was the parting shot on the ills of hustling, womanizing, and conducting oneself maturely. In his early twenties, Jay Z presented himself as a three-dimensional figure in his music. Like contemporaries Tupac Shakur, The Notorious B.I.G., and Nas, Jay reflected and made his life a stage, set between verses.
Additionally, Jay’s songwriting has presented like volumes. Consequently, the MC’s first three albums were titled as such. The artist’s associates in and out of music were discussed in his lyrics. Figures like TyTy, B-High, O.G. Juan, DeHaven, and so forth became characters in the audio plays. Jay detailed addresses, cars, and imagery that has made his verses non-fiction oral histories. Jay involved his musical peers too. From early protege Memphis Bleek to mentor Jaz-O, rivals, friends, and deep musical references, there is a web within the raps. Tracks like “Mama Loves Me” tell intricate stories, unscrupulously through the eyes of their author, while “Diamond Are Forever (Remix)” address circumstances that Jay dodged discussing in the press. Songs such as “Guilty Until Proven Innocent,” “The Takeover,” “I Got The Key” have been attached to ongoing situations in Jay’s life, in and out of the music. Before, during, and after his days as President of Def Jam, music has always been Jay Z’s press secretary.
While Reasonable Doubt, The Blueprint, and The Black Album have reigned as must-own Rap classics that are debated as some of the genre’s best albums, the songwriter of Shawn Carter also excited the single. Following his 2003 retirement from album-making, Jay chimed in on occasion in places like “Dear Summer.” These songs addressed what the artist wanted to tackle, walking a fine line in figurative speech between potentially talking about love (Beyoncé), beef (The Game), or making the sport yearn for one of its greatest athletes (Hip-Hop).
Jay Z’s songwriting has appeared, at times, to be his charity. While he helped take the aforementioned three R&B/Pop stars to #1, the MC’s appearances on tracks by Foxy Brown, Freeway, Rick Ross, Kanye West, Jeezy, Talib Kweli have helped legitimize them to new audiences.
As Jay Z rattled Hip-Hop in 2016 with a handful of remixes and album tracks, he takes an active, sought after career into the Songwriting Hall of Fame, with no plans of letting his discography get dusty.
The new songwriters will be inducted on June 15.