Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Jay-Z - This Can't Be Life (2000)

See, I was born in sewage, born to make bomb music
Flow tight like I was born Jewish
Used the streets as a conduit
I kept arms --38 Longs-- inside my mom's Buick
At any given moment Shawn could lose it, be on the news
Iron cuffs, arms through it -- or stuffed with embalming fluid
Shit, I'm going through it; Mom Dukes, too
Tears streaming down her pretty face; she got her palms to it
My life is gettin' too wild
I need to bring some sort calm to it
Thematically, The Blueprint marked a turning point for Hov. Which makes sense  -- at some point you have to decide: you can either continue rapping about dealing drugs or you can do stuff like this. Not both... at least not with any credibility.

This song isn't from The Blueprint, but it's a fitting send-off to all the dark days in Jay-Z's previous life.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Jay-Z - Where I'm From (1997)

I'm from the place where the church is the flakiest
And n-ggas been praying to God so long that they atheist
Where you can't put your vest away and say you'll wear it tomorrow
Cause the day after we'll be saying, "Damn, I was just with him yesterday"
I'm a block away from hell, not enough shots away from stray shells
Where we call the cops the A-Team
Cause they hop out of vans and spray things
And life expectancy so low we making out wills at eighteen
Where how you get rid of guys who step out of line, your rep solidifies
So tell me, when I rap, you think I give a fuck who criticize?
If the shit is lies, God strike me
And I got a question: are you forgiving guys who live just like me?
Jay's second release, In My Lifetime, was criticized by some critics for embracing a more commercial sound (see, e.g., Sunshine), but his street sensibilities still shone through. As vivid as it is bleak, Where I'm From stands out as one of Hov's grimiest tracks ever.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Jay-Z - Regrets (1996)

As sure as this, Earth is turning, souls burning
In search of higher learning
Turning in every direction, seeking direction
My mom's crying because her insides are dying
Her son trying her patience, keep her heart racing
A million beats a minute, I know I push you to your limit
But it's this game, love, I'm caught up all in it
They make it so you can't prevent it
Never give it, you gotta take it
Can't fake it, I keep it authentic
My hand got this pistol shaking, cause I sense danger
Like Camp Crystal Lake and
Don't wanna shoot him, but I got him trapped
Within this infrared dot, about to hot him and hit rock bottom
No answers to these trick questions, no time shit's stressing
My life found, I got to live for the right now
Time waits for no man, can't turn back the hands
Once it's too late, gotta learn to live with regrets
Jay-Z's Reasonable Doubt (without a doubt one of the greatest rap records of all time) is often credited for popularizing so-called Mafioso rap (wherein the artist dons --pun intended-- the persona of a mob boss).  And while there are more than a few moments where Jay-Z glamorizes that lifestyle (see, e.g., Can't Knock the Hustle, Cashmere Thoughts and, to a lesser extent, Can I Live?), he doesn't shy away from meditating on the dark side, as well.
This is the number one rule for your set
In order to survive got to learn to live with regrets
On the rise to the top many drop, don't forget
In order to survive got to learn to live with regrets

Rap Retrospective - Jay-Z

Over the next couple of days, I'm going to go through the Jay-Z catalog and highlight some of his most lyrically impressive and meaningful tracks, while doing my best to avoid the most obvious and well-known songs.  Enjoy!

Rap Retrospectives

For the next 10-14 days (I haven't decided yet), I'm going to be posting a series of retrospectives on a few of my favorite artists. Stay tuned!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

B.o.B. - Strange Clouds

Well if you guessin' it's me, you guessed correctly
I just stay with a stallion, you would swear I was an equestrian
And um, I'mma hit her with that pipe, call that Nancy Kerrigan
Stay on the greenest greens, call us vegetarians
You be on that minor league, but we smoke professionally
I do my job exceptionally, on point like a decimal is
Lest I be accused of catering exclusively to the backpack crowd, here's a mainstream banger from North Carolina rapper B.o.B. This is a surprisingly hard track, considering it's by the same dude that did the syrupy Nothin' on You (not to mention the insufferable Airplanes).

Friday, October 7, 2011

J-Live - No Time To Waste

Be not just said but heard, not just heard but seen
Not just seen but felt, behind your "nah means"
Be substance, beyond your "um, like, ya knows"
Let's see your wise words form this constant flow
Be proof at the show, show proof of life
Captivate minds, eliminate strife
Decimate the trife like check but not mate
Real kings move with ease; we block, move and take
The best food for thought; we grill like the Foreman
Build, upon blueprints, designs endurin'
While this track sounds distinctively old school, its message couldn't be more timely.  These days, it apparently doesn't go without saying that rappers are supposed to be skilled, creative lyricists. J-Live pushes back, with a track that sounds more like a religious edict than a rap song. His only commandment?  Step your game up.

This isn't a requiem for hip hop; it's a call to arms. J-Live isn't calling for idle remembrance; he's calling for a renaissance.
Plots to destroy your culture, give orders
See the self hate and doubt get deported
Beyond your borders, belay the orders
Delays and setbacks get drawn and quartered
Teach the lambs to repel that slaughter
Teach the horses to drink that water
Teach to build or destroy like mortar
And like muscle tissues get torn
Let's grow from these lessons stronger than before

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Jay Rock - M.O.N.E.Y.

Motivated by money
Money is mesmerizing
Many are murdered for it
While mayhem is exercising
Mighty as Morpheus
And it might pay your mortgages
Plus the morgue got some more of it
That embalming fluid merges through your muscles
Operation for evil, it's obvious for attack
Obedience is a must, but it's hard to obey
When your optics ain't seeing no opportunities pay
I'll admit it: I'm not really feelin' the R&B-heavy production here. But lyrically, this song is a tour de force. We've all heard that money is the root of all evil; if you needed any convincing, Jay Rock'll explain it to you in uncompromisingly gritty (not to mention alliterative) detail.

Okay, you might not often find yourself in the mood to listen to a track this dark, but you have to admire Jay Rock's exemplary wordplay.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Phonte - The Good Fight

I know it's not sane, but yo, I'm just sayin'
Everybody prays for the day they see the light
But the light at the end of the tunnel is a train
Five dollar gas, and poverty rates
Are rising much higher than your hourly rates
So if you thinkin' 'bout quittin' you should probably wait
'Cause everybody gotta do a fuckin' job that they hate
"Go and live out your dreams!"
That's what they tellin'
Fam' in my ear all day and they yellin':
"Keep it real 'Te, and don't ever sell out!"
But how the fuck you sell out when ain't nobody sellin'?
Far from inspiring, but undeniably real.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Lil Wayne - Mega Man

Young Money, man, we got this shit by a landslide
Boy, I send them bloods at your ass like a tampon
Uptown shit, wet the whole party
Weezy gon' ball, ball like Steve Harvey
The heater I'm a tuck her, Tucker like Dolores
That's my word, word like thesaurus
I don't see no future in your frontin', I be stuntin' hard
Rap game dependent on me like a bungee cord
Fear nobody but God almighty
Shoot that motherfucker 'til I get arthritis
I'm a beast, I'm a ass, I'm ahead of my class
I'm a diamond in the rough like a baby in the trash
I don't talk it, I live it, I paint a picture vivid
And them pistols popping like they sitting in a skillet
This ain't 6 Foot 7 Foot, but it does give a taste of what makes Wayne an exhilarating listen: frenetic, free-association rhymes; bizarre, outrageous metaphors; and an extraterrestrial-frogman voice that sounds just a little unbalanced.

At the risk of overstating things, Lil Wayne might just save mainstream hip hop. It's not just that he was breath of fresh air at a time when the industry had become stagnant. If you look at the arc of his career, the more lyrical (and, let's face it, weird) he got, the more popular he became. That's something I'm sure other rappers noticed. Let's hope they act on it.