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Lee Steffen

MK Asante's 'While Black' Docuseries Explores Being A Gifted POC In America

"To be Black in America means not having limitations, creating a new reality, new language and a new world."

The bravery of the youth has been at the heart of some of the nation's most prominent organizations like the Black Power movement, civil rights movement, and Black Lives Matter, to name a few. The unparalleled courage of raw-minded young adults is uplifting, educational, and not to be ignored. One person paying attention to the shorties of the future is activist and professor, MK Asante.

Asante, author of Buck: A Memoir and It's Bigger than Hip-Hop, joined forces with Snapchat for a ten-episode docuseries titled While Black with MK Asante, produced by Snap’s joint venture with NBCUniversal, Indigo Development and Entertainment Arts, along with Main Event Media. The program explores what it means to be young, gifted and black through the lens of several young men and women who are making a radical change within themselves and their communities

"On average, over 210 million people use Snapchat daily, and 90 percent of 13-24-year-olds in America are on Snapchat, so we want to create a series that dealt with some really important and impactful issues, and deal with it where the kids are," MK Asante said during a phone conversation with VIBE. "We want to create a show that starts a conversation and empowers them on their phones. Snapchat has been a pioneer in mobile storytelling. And this series explores what it means to be young gifted and black in America."

The professor of English and film at Morgan State University spoke to us about While Black With MK Asante, lessons gleaned from kids hosting the Snap Originals series, and more.

...

VIBE: The kid Nasir, who talked about being shot...the intelligence he has for being in tune with his emotions is inspiring. Many of today's young rappers are in tune with their emotions like that. 
Asante: That’s my nephew. He’s 19 years old, he’s been shot. He survived all of that and makes music. In his music he tells the story, it’s a very inspirational story. He’s 19 and he’s found his purpose. And he understands why he’s here now. But he also talks about his perspective on gun violence.

Nasir talked on his own. Those weren't questions I asked him. He started on his own talking about PTSD, and what that’s like. The film crew observed that my nephew is very observant. In a way that’s noticeable. You’re dealing with someone who notices every single thing around him, behind him, in front of him, every car that rides by. Someone commented on that, and he said, "It’s PTSD. I’m aware of everything. I have to be."

Can you tell me about one of the kids you spoke with who is doing amazing work in his/her community?  
Thandiwe Abdullah, she's a 16-year-old co-founder of the Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles Youth Vanguard. She helped organize, and lead a bunch of demonstrations, and a bunch of actions that ultimately lead to the overturning of racism in L.A. school policy in random police searches of kids' bags and stuff like that. We talked to her about all of these issues. You have more hope for the future because you realize that there are young people like that who get it.

Speaking of random police searches, when they use language about high crime rates in these areas, how do you combat that?
It’s not an argument that we honestly heard while we were making the show, but it’s an argument that I have heard. When you look at the numbers, statistically, you realize that the great majority of African American kids are not criminals. I think the problem is that we’re really talking about perception, we’re not talking about reality. We're talking about the perception that I’m going to do something, not that I’m doing something. How do you perceive someone, and why do you perceive someone the way that you do? Why does a cop throw a 12-year-old child down to the ground and punch them? Because they do not perceive that child as a child. And that’s what we talk about in one of the episodes. It’s not about any realities that are happening. It’s really about a distortion of media, and distortion in the media and distortion over time. This isn’t new.

What did you observe while working with these gifted black kids?
I observed that to be young, gifted and black in America means to remove the limitations. The young people that we feature in the show and the spirit that we want to capture is really a spirit of victory, a spirit of overcoming impossible circumstances. One of the things that I see the young people creating is a new language and with a new language comes a new reality.

The show also exposed me to lots of young people around the country, and their articulation of what they’ve been through and what they're going through and even the system was amazing, powerful. They inspired me. That’s one of the things I love about documentary-based stuff. It’s real people. I always feel like I walk away with real information.

For MK Asante, what does it mean to be a black man in America?
Not having limitations. Create a new reality, a new language, and a new world. I know that sounds counterintuitive because we’re taught you can’t do this while black, you can’t do that while black. But that is not the totality of our experience.

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The 6 Degrees of Damian Lillard

It was the shot and meme that was heard around the world. Earlier this year, Portland Trailblazers' star point guard Damian Lillard hit a series-clinching jumper from beyond the arc as time expired, advancing to the second round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs. The shot, launched over former Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George's outstretched hands was a big deal to seemingly everyone else on the planet, but for Lillard, it was simply business as usual. “We’re a really resilient team,” Lillard told a reporter in a post-game interview. “We knew it was ups and downs throughout the series, we just had to keep our heads right, stay focused, stay together. We stayed together and it came down to one play and we executed really well and we were able to get it done.”

This wasn't the first time he had shattered a championship contender's dreams and delivered defeat as a cold dish served. In May 2014, Lillard buried a three-pointer at the buzzer to give the ‘Blazers a 99-98 win over the Houston Rockets, clinching a 4-2 win in the first round of that season's NBA Playoffs, Portland's first in fourteen years. When asked about his ability to keep his composure during these pressure-packed moments, Lillard credits his big-picture outlook with keeping him poised. "It's usually not a whole lot going through my head," he says. "I think what allows me to be confident and just keep my cool in those situations is knowing that I put the time in to give myself a chance to be successful and to end these games and staying in shape physically and just having my mind in the right place. And also understanding that I can shoulder the success and the failure of it. Whichever one happens on that night, I know I can handle both. So I go into those situations not really concerned with the outcome."

Selected by the Trailblazers in 2012 with the sixth overall draft pick, Portland, Oregon would be a culture shock for the average kid bred in the mean streets of East Oakland, California. But for Lillard, his collegiate tenure at Weber State in Utah, where he competed in Portland on several occasions, afforded him some familiarity with the city. "I always liked Portland," he shares. "Because when I was in college, at Weber, we'd play Portland State every year. So when you get a chance to come to a real city like Portland where it's like an actual downtown and stores you can go to and kind of move around, you just have a different appreciation of it when you're playing all of these different small towns. I already kind of liked the city to begin with. Now I get to explore more. My best friend was already going to college here when I got drafted so I've always liked it even before I got here. When I got here and started to meet people and learn the city, move around and just being a resident here, I've only grown to like it more. It's become more of a home to me over the years."

Many words have been used to describe Lillard's play on the court, but one of the most appropriate is "ruthless," which is a major theme of the concept behind the DAME 6, his sixth signature shoe with adidas. Released November 29, the DAME 6 is another reflection of Lillard's ties to the city. "It's a great feeling especially for me because I live in Portland," he says. "And [with] adidas being in Portland, we're able to have a strong partnership. Because of the communication and us being able to get in front of each other, it's not hard to figure things; it's always one drive. I can get to them or they can get to me and I think it makes things easier. If it's a shoe I need to see or some type of hoodie or anything, socks, whatever, they can get it in front of me right away, it's not a drawn-out process."

According to Rashad Williams, adidas Basketball Senior Director of Footwear, the brand set its sights on making Lillard one of the pillars of the three stripes not long after taking the league by storm during his Rookie of the Year campaign. "I'm from the west coast so I knew where Weber State was," Williams recalls. "And then him being a lottery pick, I think he got on everyone's radar. And Dame played in adidas growing up, all the way through college so we signed him on to the family. Then I think it was by his second or third year, we were like, 'Wow.' Not only did the Trailblazers realize they had something special, adidas realized they had something special as well."

When it comes to the shoe’s creation, Williams credits Lillard with streamlining the designing process with his own ideas and input. "I think that's the big thing with Dame, he constantly challenges us on every shoe. If something's on his mind, he'll text you or he might pull up to the office, but that's how we grow and it's real." Aside from being relentless within the confines of the game, a term that embodies who Damian is as a person is "duality." He can go from being calm and collected in the midst of family and friends to transforming into a fiery floor general. And it’s artistically reflected in the DAME 6, which has many different dimensions, layers and moving parts that speak to Lillard's multifaceted lifestyle.

"I think the best way that it mirrors me is just the duality, having both sides of the shoe looking different," the All-NBA point guard explains. "I think as a player on the court, I definitely have a mean streak. That's one side of me you won't always see, but then my demeanor and my face is completely calm. Right after the game, I'm playing with my son, during the game I'm completely different so I think that's the way that it connects. Just the duality: who I am on the court and off the court, being a rapper, being a basketball player...I just think there are so many sides to who I am.”

As a long-time rap fan and aficionado, Lillard began to share his talents on Instagram with his #4BarFriday posts. Lillard, who raps under the name Dame D.O.L.L.A. (the acronym standing for "Different on Levels Lord Allowed") upped the ante from there. In 2016, he released his debut album, The Letter O, and launched his record label, Front Page Music. Featuring appearances from Lil Wayne, Juvenile, Jamie Foxx, Marsha Ambrosius and Front Page Music's flagship signees Brookfield Duece and Danny from Sobrante, The Letter O peaked at No. 62 on Billboard’s Top Album Sales chart, a respectable debut for any new artist, let alone one tasked with carrying an NBA franchise on his back. After returning with a sophomore album, Confirmed, the following year, Lillard's reputation as a lyricist began to precede him with a number of rap artists and critics viewing him as the most talented rhymer currently in the NBA, rather than an athlete moonlighting as a gimmick.

“I think one of the things people recognize is that I'm a real student of hip-hop. I know the history of hip-hop and I respect the history of hip-hop. The reason I rap is ‘cause of some of the best people who have rapped. I'm a big, big 2Pac fan, big Nas fan. Big Andre 3000 fan, Juvenile, all of these guys. Wayne, Common...like I'm a fan of that type of music. Just creating a feeling and people being able to connect with what you're saying and because I'm a fan of that, that's the kind of rap I like to create. I like to put words together to give people a feeling and allow them to be able to connect with what I'm saying. And I think a mix of all of those things, being authentic with my music and genuine with my music, I think people can hear it and they can respect it. They can connect with it and I think they respect it more when they're like, 'This dude is a basketball player.' There are people who do this as their primary career who don't know the history of the game that they're playing. And they don't respect the history of the game that they're playing in. I think a mix of those things has allowed people to respect me doing it.”

Dame's quest to be not only the best rapping athlete but the greatest rap artist of all-time has not come without its share of challengers. The biggest contender for the crown is Sacramento Kings forward Marvin Bagley, a former No. 2 overall pick whose debut mixtape, Don’t Blink, dropped on the night of the 2018 NBA Draft. During an appearance on ESPN’s First Take, analyst Max Kellerman asked Bagley who would be the victor in a rap battle between the two, to which he responded by picking himself as the superior rhymer. As the competitor that he is, Lillard accepted Bagley's challenge, prompting the former Duke star to throw down the gauntlet with "No Debate," a direct shot at Dame D.O.L.L.A. Not one to be outgunned, D.O.L.L.A. fired back quickly with a pair of tracks, "Bye Bye" and "MARVINNNNNN???." Bagley retorted with "Checkmate," which would be the final salvo in the pair's brief yet entertaining back-and-forth.

While a number of NBA players have released material, two had never engaged in lyrical warfare, making Lillard and Bagley's battle a historic one. "That was the reason I did it," Lillard says. "At first, I was like, 'If somebody ever says something to me with some music, I'm just gonna say nothing at all' 'cause it ain't that important for me. I rap for me, I'm just pushing my own music. I ain't in competition with no athletes. He mentioned my name once before and then it was on TV and it was like a thing. I started to prepare myself for it to happen for that reason, 'cause it hadn't been done before. So to be a part of the first, it was enticing. We did it and then after that, I was like, 'I'm not gonna do it.' Unbeknownst to Lillard, his days of sparring were far from over, as one of his own comments would land him in hot water with none other than retired NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal, who didn't take too kindly to a reference Lillard made during an appearance on The Joe Budden Podcast.

Lillard's remark caught the attention of Shaq, who unleashed his vengeance against Dame on "The Originator," which saw the veteran comparing D.O.L.L.A.'s net worth and lack of championship hardware with his own. Undeterred, Lillard tossed out a pair of diss tracks, “Reign Reign Go Away" and its follow-up, “I Rest My Case.” While a large chunk of the public deemed Dame D.O.L.L.A. the victor in their dust-up, Lillard makes it clear this will likely be the last time he lyrically goes head-to-head with a fellow athlete. "Again, that was it," he reiterates. “The fact that it was Shaq, and that's like a big stage for my rap career. Having such a huge figure that I'm engaging with, I was like 'That's cool.' But that's probably it for my battle rap career."

With the release of his third studio album, Big D.O.L.L.A. — which has been billed as his most impressive project to date — Lillard plans to keep his buzz afloat this NBA season. "I mean, I've only recorded during the season maybe once or twice my whole career,” he shares. “Typically I just rap in the summer and I go away during the season, but this is the first time I did a lot of stuff in advance. I recorded a lot of extra music and I partnered with a lot of different people so that my music can continue to have legs and keep moving." He continues, “I got some stuff coming up, for sure. During the NBA season, I got some stuff coming, and something else that I can't mention right now, but y'all gonna see. But next summer, hopefully, I'll have another project ready.”

Lillard looks to make up for 2018's loss in the Conference Finals and shepherd the Trailblazers toward an NBA championship. However, with squads like the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets, and Utah Jazz all retooling, the western conference is as daunting as it's ever been. "I knew it was gonna be a tough season just because of every team getting better," he says. "And us coming into the season with a completely new roster, a lot of our guys that we had for the last three to four years are on new teams now. And we brought in a new group of guys, so it's like not only did everyone get better, but we're in a process where we're trying to figure each other out. We're trying to learn each other, we're still trying to put plays in and get our chemistry together and it's just gonna be a process so we're trying to find our way in an already tough western conference. I know it's gonna be tough, I know it's gonna be a battle, but we just gotta keep our head in it for the full eighty-two [games]."

And he intends to play in every single regular-season game, an anomaly of today's NBA superstars in the age of load management. Birthed by Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs and popularized by Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors, the load management theory has been pegged as a key component in winning NBA championships, with last year's Raptors squad being the latest test case. Just don't expect Damian Lillard to be sitting any games out voluntarily anytime soon. "I mean, I think LeBron said it best: ‘If I'm healthy, I'm playing,’" he says, shrugging off any notion of him logging DNPs. "I think as somebody that just loves the game and I've worked hard my life to be able to play in an NBA game, I'ma have a whole post-game career to do load management or whatever. And I also think everyone doesn't have that luxury,” he adds. “I think that's part of the reason why so many top players are teaming up and trying to go to the team that's the strongest. Because it kind of affords you that opportunity more often than not where you can say, 'Okay, I'm not feeling great. I'ma sit this one out and worry about me because we have a team that's good enough to go out there and win without me.' But me personally, I love to play the game so I'm gonna always choose to play, but I also wouldn't wanna put my teammates in that position where I put myself above the team. We all can go out there and play, I always put myself on the same level as my teammates."

Lillard's game-winning shot may have been heard around the world, immortalized in memes and gifs, cementing him as one of the most clutch performers in the game, but the story didn't end there. Upsetting the Denver Nuggets in seven games in the second round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs, Lillard, CJ McCollum and company were stymied by the Kevin Durant-less, Steph Curry-led Golden State Warriors, who swept the Trailblazers in four games, ending Portland's most successful season in nearly two decades. And with starting center Jusuf Nurkic not expected to return to the lineup anytime soon, not to mention losing Moe Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, Evan Turner, Seth Curry and other key players from last year's roster, Portland is looking to integrate various moving parts on the fly. Currently sitting at 9th in the Western Conference with a 9-13 record as of press time and depleted by injuries, the Trailblazers haven't gotten off to as hot of a start as expected, but with an eighty-two game season and one of the NBA's top floor generals at the wheel, counting Portland out of contention wouldn't be the safest bet.

And if Portland's recent acquisition of free agent Carmelo Anthony—who was recently named Western Conference Player of the Week (from Nov. 25 to Dec. 1)—out of basketball exile can give a jolt to the Trailblazers’ offense, a return to form is certainly not out of the question. "I'm always optimistic about every team that I'm on so I think we always have a chance,” says Lillard, whose streak of double-digit scoring games was broken the night before this sit-down in a home loss to the Raptors. "Last season, we got to the Western Conference Finals and I think that experience of playing that deep into the season was our first time and you felt it. We were up against a championship-caliber team, an experienced team and that's where we lost it; We had double-digit leads in every game, it's just that championship mentality and that championship experience kind of outdid us. But I think it's all about that process for us to just continue to move forward and try to get better so that we can get back to that position and hopefully the outcome is different."

Back to that loss at the hands of the Raptors. Afterward, as Moda Center employees, team personnel, and security hold court by the loading dock, family and friends of Blazers players await to console them after a tough defeat. Portland shooting guard CJ McCollum emerges from the press conference first, with Lillard trailing. McCollum greets Lillard’s two-year-old son, Damian Lillard, Jr., who is being held by a member of Lillard’s entourage while the man of the hour holds court with a few close pals. Clad in street clothes and looking unlike a world-class athlete that just finished fielding questions from a room of reporters about what went wrong and what they could've done differently, Lillard shadow-boxes with his son, a moment that brings to mind a remark he shared about how he keeps up with all of the moving parts of his life while living under the constant flicker of the lights.

"It's one thing to be a professional athlete and have to deal with the era that we play in, where people have so much more access to you on social media," Lillard candidly shares. "Instagram, Twitter, all these ways to kind of just poke at you, positive and negative. Like you saw, we come back there through the tunnel, the loading dock and it's a bunch of people and you're faced with what your job is all the time. People on TV are commenting on everything you do so it adds stress and it adds pressure. It just makes it harder to play in this era. But when you’ve got that family support and your own kid and that real love, that unconditional love around you, it just keeps everything in perspective and it makes it easier to deal with what your job is. It makes it easier to step out of that, even in the arena that I just lost the game in. I'm still able to step out of what my reality is."

As pleasantries turn into farewells, Lillard picks up Damian Jr. and the pair fade into the Portland night. With the Trailblazer’s set to embark on a six-game road-trip, Dame’s stay in the city will be short, but at that very moment, his face says it all: there’s no place like home.

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Jerritt Clark

Lil Mosey Talks ‘Certified Hitmaker’: ‘I Want The Top Spot’

Most kids' milestones leading up to their late teenage years include gaining their parents’ trust to stay home alone, talking to their crush at the school dance, and avoiding that big, red pimple in the middle of their forehead on picture day. But by the time Lil Mosey turned 18, he had already earned his own music festival, a co-sign from Ice Cube and a spot on the Billboard charts.

 After releasing a handful of songs on his Soundcloud page, the 17-year-old rapper saw his career skyrocket in 2017 after his song "Pull Up" became a viral hit and garnered millions of streams on Soundcloud and YouTube. The streaming numbers grew considerably after a pair of successful follow-up singles ("Boof Pack," "Noticed") and before he knew it, Lil Mosey became an online sensation.

The buzz that surrounded these singles trickled into the following year as the Seattle native signed a deal with Interscope Records and earned a spot on Juice WRLD's WRLD Domination Tour. His debut studio album, Northsbest, debuted at number 28 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and was met with a positive reception from fans and outlets like HotNewHipHop and XXL. To cap it all off, the baby-faced rapper landed a spot on XXL's coveted Freshmen Class this past June. 

Lil Mosey entered a new phase in his career with his latest album Certified Hitmaker. It's a bold title but one that fits him. The 14-track album is filled with melodic trap bangers like "Rockstars" and "Live This Wild" with features from Gunna, Trippie Redd, AJ Tracey, and Chris Brown.

For the most part, Certified Hitmaker follows the same formula as its predecessor in which the baby-faced star talks about living life and having fun---the things a 17-year-old normally does. "This is my style and how I'm living. I'm at the point now that I can do whatever I want with music," Lil Mosey tells VIBE. "But I'm still trying to show off my style and show off my way of music. I'm still trying to put that out there."

VIBE caught up with Lil Mosey to speak more on Certified Hitmaker, how recording with Chris Brown inspired him, staying level-headed in the music industry at such a young age, bringing a festival to his hometown of Seattle, which NBA player he compares his career to, and more. 

It’s been a year since you’ve dropped out of school to make rap a profession. What has your first year in the music industry been like so far?

I think it’s been a big year. I learned a lot and I became an adult. I went out on my own and lived real life experiences. I learned a lot when I first blew up when I was 16 and since then the year got bigger. I learned a lot of things like the business side and where the money goes and everything. 

You’ve been hitting the festival circuit crazy lately. How do you manage with the grueling tour schedules at such a young age? 

I just know I have to do it. To me it’s fun actually so I just have fun with it and just try to show off. Every show matters and all my fans are going to be there. I have to be there for them. They came out for me.  

When did you know things were really popping off? 

Before “Pull Up” I started blowing up off Soundcloud and that’s when I really started taking it seriously. After “Pull Up” I moved out to LA and once I did that I knew to keep my foot forward and keep going. I never stopped and it took me to where I’m at now.  

What do you miss about the regular life of a teenager?

Before I blew up I was still living how I live now. I don’t feel like too much has changed, I mean yeah there’s been a lot of changes like how I go about stuff. But it’s been fine. I like doing what I do as an adult.  

You’re following in huge footsteps like Sir Mix-A-Lot and Macklemore. How does it feel to be the next big thing out of Seattle? 

It feels good. There aren’t a lot of people from Washington that go crazy so like just to put on for the whole state feels good. Not just Seattle but all the cities and towns that are near there. It feels good to be the one to do that for them. 

You really are putting on for your city. You brought the Northsbest Fest to it. What’s it feel like doing that for your hometown? 

It’s lit. I didn’t grow up off any festivals in Seattle so I’m just trying to bring some fun and something they’ve never had before. 

Are there plans to make it a big thing on the level of like the Astroworld Festival or Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival?

I’m trying to make this as big as possible. Sooner or later, hopefully, it’s going to be the biggest thing Seattle has ever seen. I basically already had a festival on my tour. We were already lit and had multiple heads performing with me. We wanted to add like five more people and we were lit. I was just trying to bring something special to Seattle. I really want the next one to be bigger than the last. This next one is going to be a lot bigger for sure. Hopefully we can move to an outdoor venue and really go crazy. Either an amphitheater or something big like the WAMU Theater.  

You’ve gotten crazy numbers on YouTube, earned a spot on XXL’s Freshmen Class list, been on an international tour and you’ve hit the Billboard charts. What else are you aiming for? 

I want the top spot. I want to be number one. I need my whole album to go platinum and I need some more plaques too. I’m really trying to go crazy.

How do you keep yourself level-headed after getting wins like these? 

I just think at the end of the day that this isn’t all that’s in store for me. If this shit doesn’t go the way I want it to go I’m obviously going to push my hardest to make it work. But there’s a lot of other stuff I have to do besides just music. I want to open businesses, invest in different things, and put more time into modeling and acting. I keep in mind that this isn’t the only thing that I do. I can do a lot more stuff. It doesn’t matter as much as some people might think it matters to me but it matters for sure.

What’s a day like in the studio for you? 

I just go through my day and when I feel like hitting the studio I go. I’ll start freestyling and thinking about what I can make and stuff. I just play through beats I’m fucking with and start freestyling over them. I don’t force myself either I try to have fun. If I go crazy then I go crazy. Some nights I’ll make about five songs in one night.  

You stuck to the same formula for Certified Hitmaker, why is that?

I feel like I created my own sound and style. I'm using this sound to show people that this is the wave. I feel like I'm definitely a melodic artist. I try to use a lot of rap elements but my main thing is melodies. I feel like what really brings them in is the melody of the song. They don't even need to know what I'm saying it'll just be replaying in their head multiple times. 

You went from flipping “You” on Northsbest to having the “G-Walk” record with Chris Brown on Certified Hitmaker. What was that like having that experience with him?

It was fire. With Chris, I pulled up to his crib and it was a straight-up vibe. I walked around his crib and he had girls making food and stuff [laughs], it was some real rockstar superstar shit. It's cool seeing all these artists I've been around before and shit. It's inspirational. He started playing the song over and over for 10 minutes and then he started freestyling that bitch. I was looking at him like this nigga is crazy. Definitely seeing other artists do that and seeing that there are other ways to record besides like taking your time and always trying your hardest, you can also just feel it and go and have fun.

I notice the album has an outer space vibe from the album cover to the spacey production. At the end of the album you can hear a voice say “Mosey you have landed in the land of make believe.” Is there a story you’re telling here?

Yea all my projects connect. That's for the next chapter though, The Land of Make-Believe.

Is that the title of your next project?

Yeah. We're going to have some shit on the way for that. It's going to be crazier and more vibes.

There have been people talking about an alleged beef between you and Lil Tecca. Were you talking about him in that Instagram freestyle you dropped? And if there isn’t any beef would you collab on a record with him?

Nah. I wasn't even thinking about Tecca on that shit. I'm not going to keep talking about it. I said what I said. He's his own person and I don't know anything about the way he creates his music. As far as collaborating I'm not sure, probably I don't know.  

Looking at your live performances your fans go crazy for you.You’re giving out three free shows in the cities of Los Angeles, New York, and Seattle. What’s the story behind that? 

It's basically showing off the album and giving the kids the opportunity to see me live and watch a good ass show. I'm doing it off the love for them supporting me the way they do. I'm going to give back to them what they're giving me. I love going crazy with them. When I see them running towards the stage when my set starts and shit at festivals, that shit be lit. That shit be turning me up. When I see them go crazy it makes me go crazy for sure.

I know you were big on basketball growing up so who would be your NBA comparison? 

I feel like Lebron James, man. I feel like the king right now. I feel like LeBron in his prime. I feel like I put in too much work over everyone else. 

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Theo Wargo

Jay-Z's 50 Most Underrated Songs

The following sentence is guaranteed to make you feel old: Jay-Z turns 50 on Wednesday, December 4, 2019.

Arguably the most celebrated hip-hop artist of all-time, Shawn Corey Carter, has lived multiple lifetimes as he comes to the halftime of life. He’s been a street hustler, a misogynistic, materialism fueled lyrical mastermind, a real musician, a successful businessman, a husband, a father, and a teacher. Looking back on a musical catalog that spans some 25 plus years, there's a substantial amount of standouts, from “Takeover” to “Hard Knock Life” to more recent triumphs like “Family Feud.” What about the tracks that fell through the cracks? The ones that had momentary flashes of adoration but have faded as the years have gone by? Here is a definitive list of Jay-Z’s 50 most underrated songs.

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“Lucky Me” – In My Lifetime Vol. 1 (1997)

Arguably Jay-Z's most underrated song, "Lucky Me" is less about the sonic soundscape and more about the lyrics, which may be Jay's most introspective on wax, rivaling even that found on the profoundly personal “4:44.” The song sees Jay reflecting on the perils of fame and the legacy he wants to leave behind:

"And ain't nothing changed so even in my afterlife I show it up/Don't grieve for me, my art remains/Like a dart from the speaker to your heart/Spiritually through the portal now my words is immortal"

The song is easily missed on the flashy and braggadocio filled '...Vol. 1’, but it's one of Jay's most notable songs and timeless in its content around the trappings of fame and what it truly means to be Hov.

“Dopeman” – Volume 3...Life and Times of S. Carter (1999)

Playing out like a movie on record, the Digga-produced "Dopeman" is underrated in more than one sense. The tension-filled, anthemic production provides a canvas for Jay to testify in a mock trial as the state brings charges against Jay's "criminal enterprise" known as Roc-A-Fella Records. The songs second verse is a time capsule looking back at late 90s hip-hop and the music business that was:

"Your distribution's Polygram, and through your connects/Def Jam, you pushed over five million SoundScan/And not to mention, your cohorts and henchmen/Dame, Biggs, Lyor, Kev and Russell Simmons/And we ain't gon' talk about Murder Inc./that just establishes a deeper, darker criminal link."

Storytelling in rap isn't a lost art per se, but storytelling that puts the listener in the courtroom and builds suspense throughout the song is rare, and "Dopeman" is one of hip-hop’s best examples of storytelling as a part of the art form.

“Young, Black & Gifted Freestyle" – S. Carter Collection (2003)

Appearing on Jay-Z's only official mixtape (don't we wish now that Hov was more prolific in the mixtape game?), "Young, Gifted & Black" features one of Jay's most fluid flows as Jay goes in over Big Daddy Kane's "Young, Black and Gifted" instrumental, originally produced by Marley Marl.

Some of the freestyles most memorable bars include:

"I'm America's worst nightmare/I'm young, black, and holdin' my nuts like "Geah!"/Y'all was in the pub, havin' a light beer, I was at the club, havin' a fight there"

"Downloadin' all our music on ya iPods there/I'm Chuck D, standin' in the crosshairs here"

“Caught Their Eyes” Feat. Frank Ocean – 4:44 (2017)

As anticipation built for the release of Jay's 4:44 album and guests and rumors began to swirl, fans locked in on "Caught Their Eyes" with Frank Ocean. The song doesn't immediately stand out as one of 4:44's most lyrically dense; however, the No I.D.-produced track expertly sampling Nina Simone's "Baltimore" is hypnotizing to the ear. And this isn't to say that it doesn't deliver lyrically either. Jay's 2nd verse is a glimpse into the music business, and Hov's relationship with the late Prince as Jay doesn't shy away from calling out those who he believes profited from the singer's death:

"Now, Londell McMillan, he must be color blind/They only see green from them purple eyes" "You greedy bastards sold tickets to walk through his houseI'm surprised you ain't auction off the casket"

“Cashmere Thoughts” – Reasonable Doubt (1996)

In a 2011 interview with Complex, “Cashmere Thoughts” producer Clark Kent said the song was a joke of sorts with him and Jay talking pimp sh*t back and forth at the beginning. But the song is anything but a laugh as the song sees Jay pre-super stardom spitting pure pimped out, braggadocio lyrics saying his words are “worth a million” like he was spitting them through platinum teeth. Clark Kent’s production on “Cashmere…” is wildly underrated as he beautifully spins Hamilton Bohannon’s “Save Their Souls” into a groovy street soundscape for Jay to talk his sh*t.

“I Know What Girls Like” Feat. Puff Daddy and Lil’ Kim – In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 (1997)

“I Know What Girls Like” isn’t a great song, but time has rendered the jiggy-era track from “In My Lifetime Vol. 1” more impressive. Save for the stomach-turning chorus, verses from Lil’ Kim and Jay-Z are everything late 90s hip-hop was: flashy, filled with innuendo, and hosting enough brand name drops that pretty much every listener felt poor as hell listening to the song.

“Safety deposit in the walk-in closet/Marble faucets and matching Rolls Royces” spits Lil’ Kim in a time in Hip-Hop when Bad Boy and ‘The Roc’ ruled the world.

“If I Should Die” (Feat. Da Ranjahz) – Vol.2...Hard Knock Life (1998)

Roc-A-Fella artists before there was actually a Roc-A-Fella, Wais and Haph AKA Da Ranjahz appear on the Swizz Beatz-produced “If I Should Die” off Jay’s breakthrough album Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life. Beat wise it’s a time capsule to Swizzy’s stutter-step, spastic production, and what makes the song underrated isn’t so much Swizz or Jay but rather some underappreciated verses by the aforementioned Wais and Haph. Haph (or Half Dead as he was known then) especially comes through with some vicious, vivid bars to finish off the song:

“I'll be down in hell scorchin' preparin' for life/Afterlife still torchin' and blazin' these mics/It'd rain for 40 days and 40 nights/And I'd return on the 3rd like Christ/(Without my physical portion)/My spirit a poltergeist for sureI'll be back through the Heights tomorrow/Blood over y'all fake ni**as door”

“Snoopy Track” (Feat. Juvenile) – Volume 3...Life and Times of S. Carter

Sounding like an engine revving at the starting gates of the Indy 500, the Timbaland-produced “Snoopy Track” off Jay’s Vol. 3 released in December 1999 is an impressive coming together of Hov’s growing NYC rap domination, and Juvenile’s Cash Money bred southern slick talk. It would be easy to make the argument for “Snoopy Track” being of Jay’s top three most underrated songs if it weren’t for what is ultimately hollow lyrical content, but pure uncut dope nonetheless. Juvenile assists on the song's hook while Hov tells tales of “Spanish cats with the keys of coca” and liking women with Gucci shoes and “new coochie.”

“There’s Been A Murder”– Volume 3...Life and Times of S. Carter (1999)

If you've forgotten this gem from 'Vol. 3…", one only needs to go back and look at the lyrics of this hidden masterpiece which reads like the script for the yet-to-be-produced Jay-Z biopic:

"Follow the life of this reckless minor/At sixteen in the 600, unlicensed driver/Playin', cops and robbers, like shots can't stop us/Flippin' a bird to the choppers (f**k you coppers!)"

The song gets its charge from the Alana Davis-sampled chorus with the aching refrain of "think there's been a murder…" Lost in the tales of drugs, gun, murder, and hustling is the fact that the song is the first time Hov "killed Jay-Z" with the 2nd being on "Kill Jay-Z" off his 4:44 album.

“Soon You’ll Understand”– The Dynasty: Roc La Familia (2000)

Relationships are complicated, and Jay-Z attacked them head-on with "Soon You'll Understand," one of the few solo tracks on Jay's should-have-been-a-compilation 'The Dynasty…' album. Rumors suggest the song is about model Shenelle Scott, a model who Hov was once rumored to have a child with. Song's intended target aside, the haunting Just Blaze production allows Jay to paint pictures of relationships lost amidst guiding exes in his black book:

"But still when your boyfriend ditched you, life's a bi**h you cried/Over my right shoulder, I told you to wipe your eyes/Take your time when you liking a guy/'Cause if he sense that your feelings too intense, his pimp'll die"

“Girls, Girls, Girls Part 2” – The Blueprint (2001)

A hidden treasure for Hip-Hop purists, Jay-Z’s “secret” track from his hip-hop classic The Blueprint album is a chest of historical music facts. Most people know about the uncredited Michael Jackson background vocals. The song is also one of Kanye’s first beats for Hov and along with MJ, features background vocals from Chante Moore. Pt. 2 brings substantially more soul than its album single counterpart “Girls, Girls, Girls,” thanks to a smooth Persuaders sample of their song “Trying Girls Out”.

Where the original “Girls, Girls, Girls” was more accessible for the masses, “Pt. 2” is dripping with soul and brings a stronger lyrical performance from Jigga:

“I'm lookin' for a Southern girl that cook like Patti LaBelle/Big ghetto booty, scarf over her doobie/Chanel under the Louis, Gucci over her booty”

“Bi**hes & Sisters” – The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse (2002)

“ Sisters work hard, b**ches work your nerves” said Hov on his criminally unnoticed “B**ches & Sisters” bonus track from his bloated The Blueprint 2… album (but hey, “mid” for Hov is the peak for many). Sampling N.W.A.’s classic “A B**ch Iz A B**ch” and Kim Weston’s 70s cut “When Something is Wrong with My Baby,” the song sees Jay breaking down the differences between “b**ches” and “sisters.” Some examples? “Sisters tell the truth, b**ches tell lies,” “Sisters do it slow, b**ches do it fast”...you get the point. For his part, Just Blaze gives Jay a horn-fueled banger to spit game on what could be considered one of the Roc-A-Fella honcho’s last overtly misogynistic songs.

“Guns & Roses” Feat. Lenny Kravitz –The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse (2002)

It’s not everyday Lenny Kravtiz guests on a Hip-Hop track. The forgotten banger from Jay-Z’s only truly average album ‘The Blueprint 2…’ is chock-full of interesting facts that make this one a must revisit track from Hov’s catalog. First off, the song samples Cake’s “Arco Arena.” What makes the Cake sample even more impressive is it was crafted into the song’s track by the late hip-hop pioneer Heavy D. In one of his last interviews in 2011, Heavy D told Tim Westwood that he played the track for Jay-Z in Los Angeles as they drove around. Jay crafted the lyrics in his head. Little known fact: Hov and Lenny performed the song on Saturday Night Live in 2002.

“Meet the Parents” – The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse (2002)

Because of the mixed reaction to its initial release, not much credit is given to Jay-Z's The Blueprint 2… album. Not only did it follow up one of the essential albums in music's history with The Blueprint, but the collection was bloated with substantial filler. That being said, it's time to give Hov and Just Blaze their flowers for some of what they did on the project. Case in point: "Meet the Parents." Just Blaze's synthy, gloomy backdrop was the perfect track for Hov to speak on the perils of street life and telling a story with the ultimate lesson of being there for your children. One of the song's more emotional moments is Hov's nod to the passed on B.I.G. and Aaliyah:

"So, give Big a hug, tell Aaliyah I said hi/Till the next time I see her, on the other side"

“Do U Wanna Ride” Feat. John Legend – Kingdom Come (2006)

As the story has been told, Jay-Z's close friend Emory "Vegas" Jones was sentenced to 16 years in prison, missing Jay's meteoric rise to the top of the entertainment world. But like a good friend, Jay never abandoned Emory, ultimately helping secure his early release with a job offer at Rocawear. Now a successful executive at Roc Nation and entrepreneur with his  ‘Bet on Yourself' Puma collaboration, Emory has turned his life around.

It wasn't always this good, however, and Jay's Do U Wanna Ride from his Kingdom Come album was a letter to his incarcerated friend, even beginning with a recording of a call Emory made to Jay while locked up. The song was said to have been critical in keeping Emory's spirits up while serving his sentence. As Hov says on the song, any time Emory called him while inside he just wanted to hear Jay "talk fly" and Hov does just that on the song's 2nd verse:

"International Hov, I told you so/ 40/40s out in Tokyo/ Singapore, all this from singing songs"

“30 Something” – Kingdom Come (2006)

Getting older is unavoidable, but aging gracefully is within your hands. Jay-Z's 2006 track "30 Something" aimed to shine a light on aging Hip-Hop fans, including Hov himself. The song set out to teach Jay's aging audience how he has managed to transition gracefully into adulthood. Think of it as a precursor to Jay telling fans about the artwork he bought for one million with early investment advice around stocks and clubs:

"I don't got the bright watch, I got the right watch / I don't buy out the bar, I bought the nightspot/I got the right stock"

Dr. Dre mans the boards and while Dre's production on "30 Something" won't have anyone confusing it with "Still Dre," it's reliable and shines on the song's remix with Ice Cube and Andre 3000.

“People Talkin'” – MTV Unplugged (2001)

After making history with his MTV Unplugged live album backed by The Roots playing his hits, Jay-Z placed this gem as a hidden track at the end. Armed with a beautiful sample flipped by frequent collaborator Ski Beatz, Hov celebrates his rarity and his excellence in hip-hop through that point of his career. "Damnit man, this is a gift from God," he insists. Amen.

“Heaven” – Magna Carta Holy Grail (2013)

When people list Jay-Z's "hardest" songs, it's unlikely they reference the Timbaland, The-Dream, and J-Roc produced "Heaven" from 2013's often panned Magna Carta Holy Grail album. But when Jay spits "arm, leg, leg, head - this is God body" with ferocity, Hov launches into an examination of religion, life, and death that can only be described as one of Jay's more underappreciated songs. Hov even tackles the Illuminati rumors head-on providing a believable explanation: "Conspiracy theorist screaming Illuminati/They can't believe this much skill is in the human body."

Fun fact: The song was supposed to feature Ghostface Killah and Raekwon.

“Somewhereinamerica” – Magna Carta Holy Grail (2013)

"Somewhereinamerica" should be remembered as one of Jay-Z's most poignant on racism and the state of race relations in America. Unfortunately, it's more often remembered for the line "Cause somewhere in America/Miley Cyrus is still twerkin'" which was followed up by a Miley tweet and subsequent Hov acknowledgment.

Hov seemingly brushed off the line as a slight at Miley but looking at the context of the song's lyrics, it's obvious it's a sharp commentary on not only white appropriation of black culture but the out front racism of new America: "New money, they looking down on me."

“This Life Forever” – Jay-Z: The Hits Collection, Volume One (2010)

For the Jay-Z purists, "This Life Forever" is about as pure as it gets for a song that didn't appear on 'Reasonable Doubt.' The underrated street hustler's tale appears on the 1999 soundtrack for the unreleased film Black Gangster based on the 1972 novel by Donald Goines. Much of the credit for the purity of "This Life Forever" goes to Queens producer Ty Fyffe whose hard drums give Hov the canvas to spit lyrics like: "I'm the truest ni**a to do this, ni**a, and anything else is foolish/Like those who stay high, under God's grey skies/My lyrics is like Bible, made to save lives"

And when Jay says, "All day, socks explode and sweatpants pockets is bulging" you can see a young Shawn Carter on the corner moving his work while dreaming of what could be.

“Imaginary Players” – Reasonable Doubt (1996)

The Prestige produced “Imaginary Players” could have easily found itself on The Blueprint. The Rene & Angela-sampled track is dripping with soul as Hov speaks on his pre-and post-rap riches and his love of finer things. It’s interesting to look back and see the brands name-checked by Hov back in the late 90s - Cartier, Versace, Hummer, and Rolex. “Imaginary Players” is really that “down south Master P, bout it, bout it” sh*t as the listener rides shotgun with Hov early rap fame and seeing visions of what the future holds.

“Always Be My Sunshine” Feat. Foxy Brown & Babyface – In My Lifetime Vol. 1 (1997)

Wait, underrated? Wasn’t this is one of Jay-Z’s most successful songs? Not really. “Sunshine” peaked at #95 on the Hot 100 and #16 on the rap charts. And chart struggles aside, the song was the one in Jay’s career that seemingly everyone loves to hate, including former Roc-A-Fella executives. In an interview with the ItsTheReal podcast in 2017, Roc Nation’s Lenny S. said, “We were kinda digging out of a hole after “Sunshine,” and the video didn’t help…”

But is the hate warranted? Ring off “Sunshine” at any party and no one is going to tell you to turn it off. The Prestige-produced track samples MC Lyte, Alexander O' Neal, Kraftwerk, and The Fearless Four providing a sugary canvas for Jay and Foxy Brown to trade playful lyrics while Babyface lends his vocals to the song’s hook. No, “Sunshine” is not Blueprint quality Hov, but it is one of the jiggy era's more enjoyable guilty pleasures.

“Rock Star Freestyle" – S. Carter Collection (2003)

With a nod to Run-DMC’s “King of Rock” to kick off the freestyle, Jay’s destruction of N.E.R.D’s “Rockstar” beat off the ‘S. Carter Collection’ mixtape was the official signal to Jay’s “retirement” when the Roc head honcho rapped “Rap’s my hobby, spending money’s my job.”

Hov had reached such heights at the time of the freestyle that a comparison like “bigger than U.S. steel” (U.S. steel was at the time the 15th largest steel producer in the world) didn’t seem so far fetched. By no means Hov’s most magnificent set of bars but a forgotten moment off of Jay-Z’s only official mixtape.

“Glory” Feat. Blue Ivy

In the music blog era, the drop of “Glory,” Jay-Z’s tribute to the birth of his daughter, was a huge moment. At the time of its release, Rolling Stone called the record “rushed,” but a more accurate description of the song is “pure.” Featuring the first sounds of his newborn daughter, the Neptunes-produced track is one of Jay’s most-open lyrically on wax. The feelings of a new father seep through lines like “Your mama said that you danced for her/Did you wiggle your hands for her?” and deeply personal bars around previous miscarriages suffered by Jay and B. “False alarms and false starts/All made better by the sound of your heart.”

But it’s the song’s 2nd verse that genuinely cements this as one of Jay’s most underrated. Where the first verse sees Jay reflecting on his daughter’s birth, the second speaks to some of Jay’s trials growing up, including those with his father: “Your Grandpop died of ni**a failure/Then he died of liver failure/Deep down he was a good man.”

“The City is Mine” Feat. Blackstreet – In My Lifetime, Vol. 1

What makes “The City is Mine” notable is that it feels like New York City at night. When Jay says, “I snatch your girl if your arm ain't strong enough/plus y’all don't stay in the studio long enough” you can visualize the late-night NYC studio sessions followed by club nights into the wee hours of the morning in the early Roc days. The song, like much of the shots at Pop stardom on ‘...Vol. 1’ was a moderate success and sure, the Teddy Riley production and Blackstreet helmed chorus isn’t the hardest you’ll ever hear Hov coming. However, much like “Sunshine”, the song’s lyrics still hold to what made people fall in love with Jay-Z in the first place: clever wordplay, vivid lyrics, and a sense of motivation for the listener who saw the street hustler beginning to rise Rap’s ranks.

“Party Life” – American Gangster (2007)

Somewhere between underrated, despite overall incredible reviews, and misunderstood, you will find Jay-Z’s American Gangster album. A concept project inspired by the film of the same name starring Denzel Washington, the album was steeped in 70s soul and funk with Diddy and The Hitmen helming the boards for six of the album’s tracks.

“Party Life” isn’t one of the tracks that jump out immediately from the project, but it encapsulates the build of the project. Diddy and team more or less jacked Little Beaver’s “Get Into the Party Life” for the song which Jay-Z chews up and spits out, using a slower, almost Southern drawl flow with tales of parties, sex and enough classic gangster references to fill a novel:

“I make it look good to be this hood, Meyer Lansky/Mixed with Lucky Lefty, gangster effortlessly”

“Dear Summer” – Memphis Bleek: 534 (2003)

In 2005, two years had passed since Jay-Z released what many believed was his swan song with The Black Album. So that made "Dear Summer," his solo song on Memphis Bleek's album 534, particularly resonant when it dropped. Over a nostalgic production by Just Blaze, Hov writes a breakup letter to the summer, in homage of the way that he would drop a new record or start the album cycle during the summer of every year. Thankfully, he would return full force the following year with Kingdom Come, launching a new era of his already storied career.”

“Ignorant Sh*t” Feat. Beanie Sigel – American Gangster (2007)

Yes, Just Blaze killed "Ignorant Sh*t." Yes, both Jay-Z and Beanie Sigel skate on this track like they play for the New York Rangers. And yes, "Ignorant Sh*t" is underrated - underrated in the sense that it should forever be referenced for being one of Hov's brightest moments. Digging deeper into Jay's lyrics on the 'American Gangster' track, Hov gets in between the bars on this one:

"Then, actually, believe half of what you see / None of what you hear, even if it's spat by me / And with that said, I will kill ni**as dead"

It's like Jay pulled back the curtain on hip-hop the same way CM Punk pulled back the curtain on pro wrestling during his infamous pipe bomb promo, exposing the scripted nature of much of what you hear on a record.

"Oh My God" – Kingdom Come (2006)

With its hints of “U Don’t Know”-like rowdiness and ferociousness, but with a bit of a lighter feel, the Just Blaze-produced “Oh My God” is a standout from Hov’s Kingdom Come album. Just’s masterful sampling of “Whipping Post” (originally performed by The Allman Brothers Band) anchors the chorus screams of “good lord” as tension builds into each verse. The 3rd verse is the highlight with Hov recanting visits to Africa and having dinner with Italian designer Roberto Cavalli:

“I got crowned king down in Africa/Out in Nigeria, do you have any idea/Sold out shows out in Seoul, Korea/Jo'burg, Dublin, Tanzania/Lunch with Mandela, dinner with Cavalli”

“I Made It” – Kingdom Come (2006)

Never one to shy away from braggadocio bars, "I Made It" off Jay's Kingdom Come album is one of those rare moments where it's less about making a hit and more about therapy. The therapy, in this case, is what feels like Jay-Z finally exhaling the countless hours in the studio, trials and tribulations and trappings of success to proclaim that he had “made it.” The first two verses recap Jay's relationship with his mom Gloria Carter with the 3rd bringing the song to the present day, giving the listener a glimpse into Hov's current relationship with Mrs. Carter:

"CEO of Carter Foundation, wow! I know pop looking down/I know Colleek somewhere up in the clouds like/Go get 'em Grandma make me proud"

Colleek is the reference to Jay-Z's nephew who passed in a car accident in 2005. Jay references the incident on "Lost One", another standout from his Kingdom Come album:

"My nephew died in the car I bought / So I'm under the belief it's partly my fault"

“Bam” Feat. Damian Marley – 4:44 (2017)

4:44 is arguably Jay-Z’s latest hip-hop classic filled with painfully personal lyrics around infidelity, loss, and redemption. “Bam,” while one of the album’s more shallow moments (i.e. it doesn’t talk about family or cheating on Beyonce), the song is underrated for one primary reason. Where much of 4:44 is meant to make the listener think and look inwards at their own life, “Bam” serves one primary purpose: to show that Jay-Z can still get a listener amped and bang their head. – nothing more, nothing less. It sees Jay leaving the family talk alone and getting back to that Pyrex talk telling tales of stuffing a million in a sock drawer and having ARs before A&Rs.

“Anything” –  Beanie Sigel: The Truth (1999)

When Beanie Sigel dropped his Rocafella debut The Truth in 1999, label boss Jay-Z provided his client with an assist by placing the solo song "Anything" on the album. The song had similar vibes to "Hard Knock Life," the breakout single from his album Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life that dropped the year before: clunky drums, a sample of a child singing on the hook, and lyrics that reminisce on his time growing up in Brooklyn's Marcy Projects. The song also appeared on the European version of Vol. 3...Life And Times of S. Carter as a bonus track.

“Intro” ‘The Dynasty: Roc La Familia (1999)

A Jay-Z album intro track is always a thing of beauty. From the classic that is “Intro / A Million And One Questions / Rhyme No More” off Vol. 1 to “The Ruler’s Back” off The Blueprint, it’s always a guarantee that the opening darts on the board from Hova are sure to be fire. “Intro” off The Dynasty… album is one of Hov’s intro tracks that many people don’t immediately look at as a “go-to,” but once it’s played, memories of just how fire it is coming rushing back. If “Intro” was on The Blueprint or Vol. 1 or one of any other more memorable Jay albums, it would be a more recurring play. It isn’t a stretch to say that the production on this is some of Just Blaze’s most exceptional work ever.

Interesting fact: The singing in the sample that occurs every four bars was a mistake due to two separate loops playing at the same time. In the end, it’s one of the most memorable parts of the song and cements this as one of Jay’s underrated intros.

“100$ Bill” – Various Artists: Music From Baz Luhrmann's Film The Great Gatsby (2013)

Don’t feel too bad if your first response was, “what Jay-Z song is this?” Jay’s contribution to The Great Gatsby soundtrack didn’t exactly light the music world on fire, but it’s worth a revisit if for nothing the way Jay dissects the “roaring 20s” and compares it to modern-day. When Jay compares himself to Mark Twain as a writer or to Malcolm X as a revolutionary, it’s like Hov verifying his pages in music’s history book. Producer E*Vax gives Jay one of the more awkward, skittish beats of his career, which makes this one a little less pleasing to the ear but worth a revisit nonetheless.

“In My Lifetime” (Remix) – Various Artists: Streets is Watching (1998)

“In My Lifetime” (Remix) is 90s hip-hop encapsulated in 4 minutes and 37 seconds of pure bliss. Nothing but an incredible Jaz-O rework of the original track produced by Ski and a fresh-off-the-streets Jay-Z enjoying life “lettin the Cristal breathe at the Barnacle Bar.” The song continues the theme of early Jay-Z struggling with his past experiences with lines like “I’m a prisoner of my crimes.”

“A Week Ago” Feat. Too $hort – Vol 2 ... Hard Knock Life (1998)

MIA producer J Runnah helms the beat on Jay-Z and Too $hort's collaboration off Jay's Vol. 2… album. Fueled by a beat centered around 80s-like rock guitars and devastating piano keys, Hov and $hort tell the all too common street tale of a former partner snitching when the chips are down:

"I ran to the spy store to add some more features on my phone/To see if I had bugs and leeches on my phone/Can't be too safe, 'cause ni**as is two-faced"

The song is said to be directed at Jay-Z's former friend DeHaven Irby who Jay has accused of snitching on songs in the past.

“What We Talkin’ About” Feat. Luke Steele – The Blueprint 3 (2009)

“I ain't talkin' about gossip, I ain't talkin' about Game/I ain't talkin' about Jimmy, I ain't talkin' about Dame/I'm talkin' about real sh*t, them people playin'”

With those bars, Shawn Carter took yet another step in leaving the old Jay-Z behind. This underrated album cut from The Blueprint 3 features MGMT's Luke Steele on the song's hook. "What We Talkin' About" is Jay's shot at the critics and the fans for that matter, asking for the old Hov or wanting to know about perceived shots at the throne from other emcees. While the song isn't the pinnacle of Jay album intros, there are still some true lyrical gems to be found here, including Jay reminding people of his part in getting Barack Obama elected to office: "A small part of the reason the president is black."

“I Can’t Get Wid Dat” B-Side

The first comment under the YouTube video for Jay-Z’s “In My Lifetime” b-side is “I wanna see Jay z rapping like this in 2019.” And with good reason. “I Can’t Get Wid Dat” is a lesser-known Hov time capsule to his “wiggity wack,” Das-Efx like early 90s flow. The crazy thing about “old” Hov is that the vocal inflections and vibe have never been lost. In a way, this track from 1994 captures why Jay-Z is still at the top of the hip-hop world in going into 2020: presence, a raw but crisp delivery, and the ability to ride any track, including this Clark Kent banger, to critical acclaim and adoration.

“You Must Love Me” – In My Lifetime, Vol 1 (1998)

"You Must Love Me" type hip-hop music is unfortunately not made too often anymore. Sure, rappers make songs about life's trials, growing up in stressful situations and doing wrong to those close to them, but how authentic is it truly? "You Must Love Me," a Kelly Price-featured gem that gets somewhat lost in the "jigginess" of Hov's In My Lifetime..., feels real. It feels so real that the listener can envision Jay stealing from his mom's purse, shooting his brother, or having "girlfriends" smuggle drugs on planes. It’s one of those rare moments where a song becomes so vivid that it makes the listener feel like they’re hearing things they shouldn’t know about.

“It’s Like That” Feat. Kid Capri – Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life – (1998)

Nothing revolutionary content-wise, this standout from Kid Capri’s Soundtrack to the Streets album also appeared on Jay’s third album Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life. Produced by Kid, the song sees Jay politicking on his street origins and singling out the only rappers he f**ked with at the time:

“You dudes is too soft, why I don't f**k with you all I might bark at X, or spit at The LOX/But, other than that, I don't be f**kin' with cats”

“I Did It My Way” – The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse (2002)

In hindsight, “I Did It My Way” could have been a bigger song for Jay-Z had the label ante’d up on sampling the Frank Sinatra version of “My Way” rather than the Paul Anka version, which Hov communicated at the time was the cheaper route.

“All Around the World” Feat. LaToiya Williams – The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse (2002)

The lyrics from “All Around the World” aren’t going to sit in any hip-hop hall of fame, but this forgotten track from Jay’s The Blueprint 2… album is fun. And many times “fun” hip-hop is cast away shortly after its release due to its lack of substance, but there are some great bars on this song – not because of the content but Jay’s uncanny ability to use flow and cadence to make something stay in the listener’s head:

“London, England, South of France/And all points between they know about your man / Konichiwa ladies when I'm out in JapanI'm a Tokyo Giant like Ichiro, I am”

“Runnin', then I wake up in Martha's Vineyard/St. Bart's this year, I think I'm gon' spend Christmas/Reminiscin' 'bout the time my mom couldn't spend Christmas”

Whether the Ichiro line or Hov’s double-play on “Christmas,” the song’s concept is simple, but there are more to the bars than what’s on the surface.

"Blueprint 2” – The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse (2002)

Ask most hip-hop fans, and they'll tell you that the classic rap beef that was Jay-Z vs. Nas is primarily wrapped up in Nas' "Ether" and Jay's "Takeover" and "Supa Ugly" (which was so disrespectful that Jay's mom made him apologize). But Jay-Z's "Blueprint 2" off The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse is a wildly underrated chapter in the story of one of Rap's most historic beefs. Yes, the chorus is beyond awful, but the song contains some of Jay's best body blows at Nas:

"Is it Oochie Wally Wally or is it One Mic?Is it Black Girl Lost or shorty owe you for ice?"

"And the little homie Jungle is a garden to me"

"Can't y'all see that he's fake, the rap version of T.D. JakesProphesizin' on your CD's and tapes"

The almost comically apocalyptic backdrop from producer Charlemagne isn't "Takeover" level punishing, but it serves the purpose for Jay's last shots in the battle.

“Show You How” – The Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse (2002)

The appropriately titled “Show You How” is the essence of Jay-Z’s famous line “I can’t help the poor if I’m one of them” off his classic Black Album song “Moment of Clarity.” The song provides the listener specific instructions on how to ball-out like Hov and go after what you want in life. But it’s the fairer species who may have gotten blessed most by Hov on this album cut:

“And ma don't give him nothin', unless he's treatin' you special/Soon he'll get desperate, and go down and bless you/And when he come up for air, with a mouth full of hair/Just grab your coach bag and get the f**k outta there, yeah”

“Minority Report” Feat. Ne-Yo – Kingdom Come (2006)

It’s hard to believe that “Minority Report” isn’t celebrated more when it comes to Jay’s broader catalog. Similar to Lil’ Wayne’s underrated “Tie My Hands”, the challenging subject matter on “Minority Report,” centered around the devastating Hurricane Katrina that battered New Orleans in 2005, opens up wounds around race in American that many listeners likely don’t want to revisit too often. Which is a shame because the song contains some of Jay’s most meaningful bars, including one of the truest ever spoken on record at the onset of the song - “People was poor before the hurricane came...”

As much as the song is about America’s response to the hurricane, it’s also about Jay-Z looking inward at his response to the tragedy and questioning if he did enough: “Sure, I ponied up a mil' but I didn't give my time/So, in reality, I didn't give a dime.”

“Nickels and Dimes” – Magna Carta Holy Grail (2013)

At the time of Magna Carta Holy Grail’s Samsung-sponsored release, Jay-Z produced a series of videos where he talked about the meaning behind the album’s songs including the underrated “Nickels and Dimes”:

The song’s theme is one many can relate with who have found success in life despite close friends, family, or even strangers for that matter continuing to struggle day-to-day. How do the successful reconcile a beautiful experience with a dark mess left behind? Jay gets knee-deep in trying to answer the question on the Kyambo “Hip-Hop” Joshua-produced track, including considering the beauty of the struggle:

“Something 'bout the struggle so divine/This sort of love is hard to define/When you scratching for every nickel and dime”

But Jay isn’t there anymore; he’s further away from the struggle than most people on earth with a net worth north of $1 billion. And this is why Jay is brutally honest in saying that sometimes he feels “survivor’s guilt,” and instead of simply giving money to the less fortunate, he wants to provide opportunity.

“MaNyfaCedGod” Feat. James Blake – 4:44 (2017)

A bonus track from Jay’s critically-acclaimed 4:44 album, “ManyFacedGod” features James Blake, hip-hop's favorite white boy crooner next to Bon Iver. The trip-hop-like beat was produced by the aforementioned Blake and English producer Dominic Maker and continues the theme of Jay reflecting on a significantly rough patch with his wife, honing in on the timing of the release of Beyonce’s critically-acclaimed Lemonade album which many see as the onset of infidelity accusations levied against Hov:

“Look at all we been through since last AugustSkating through the rumors like, "Aw, sh*t!"Still came back, f**ked up the red carpet/Shows how big your heart is”

The production on the track is one of the song's more underrated elements as it lays out a gloomy, painful layer for Jay-Z to pile on with truly deep-cut bars like "Woulda broke me down had you got away/It woulda broke me up, you took my child away/I'm glad we found a way"

“Things That U Do” Feat. Mariah Carey – Vol. 3...Life and Times of S. Carter (1999)

If Jay-Z's "Sunshine" is pop sugar-filled radio candy, "Things That U Do" off 'Vol. 3…" is a truck full of raw sugar dumped on a pile of pink lollipops. In other words, it's up there with the most poppy material Jay has ever done. That being said, the song is still an undiscovered gem in Jay's catalog, driven by the riddled flute backdrop from Swizz Beatz and surprisingly substantive lyrics from Hov. Mariah's airy, somewhat forgettable chorus leans into a third verse from Jay that touches on his entry into the game and his versatility as an MC:

"Don't matter to me the Garden or flowin' on Clue...You know I've traveled through zones/Homes spazzed like a bad back/I came into this game on Jaz's back”

“Fallin’” – American Gangster (2007)

“Fallin’” is everything a song should be on a concept album like Jay-Z’s American Gangster. Vivid, poignant, and with lyrics at the forefront. The production from Jermaine Dupri isn’t minimalist in the most real sense, but it isn’t overpowering and lets Jay’s tales of taking the street game one-step too far room to breathe. The song is centered around the “alphabet boys” closing in on Frank Lucas, the legendary gangster the American Gangster film is centered around, and Jay references some other famous gangster flicks to communicate just how close Frank had taken it to the edge:

“Damn, you f**ked up like your favorite movie scene/Godfather, Goodfellas, Scarface, Casino/You seen what that last run did to De Niro in Heat”

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