JAY-Z At Webster Hall
Theo Wargo

Jay-Z's 50 Most Underrated Songs

As Jay-Z turns 50, VIBE chooses 50 of his most slept on 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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DJ Cassidy

DJ Cassidy Speaks On 'Pass The Mic Vol. 2' Ft. Hip-Hop Greats LL Cool J, Rakim, Salt-N-Pepa, MC Lyte And 30+ More MCs

With the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc globally, 2020 has been a year filled with tragedy and uncertainty, as an innumerable amount of lives have been taken or affected as a result of the spread of the virus. The world of entertainment, which relies on ticket-holders and live spectators, is affected severely, with artists unable to tour, give live performances, interact with fans, or even create material by committee. This unprecedented blackout of sorts is a tough pill to swallow and threatens to forever alter the industry as we know it. However, as a culture and artform that built its history around making the best of times with minimal resources at its disposal, hip-hop is at the forefront of keeping the public entertained and butts moving, with various DJs, artists, and producers discovering new ways to stay in tune with the people.

While new, digital platforms like DJ D-Nice's "Club Quarantine" and Swizz Beatz and Timbaland's "Verzuz" battle series are ahead of the curve, the latest virtual experience to emerge is Pass The Mic, a live event created and hosted by legendary spinner DJ Cassidy. A native New Yorker, Cassidy, who made his name via the club circuit during the late '90s and early aughts, has a resume that rivals the most accomplished of DJs, having spun at high profile events such as the 2009 inauguration ball for Barack Obama, Obama's 50th birthday party, and the wedding of JAY-Z and Beyonce. Performing hundreds of shows on a yearly basis, Cassidy, whose touring schedule was halted due to the pandemic, was stuck at home when a conversation with legendary soul musician Verdine White of Earth, WInd & Fire gave him an epiphany.

 

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Thank you @revwon @kingdmc @llcoolj @mrchuckd_pe @therealdjchillwill @therealdougefresh @thegodrakim @mcshan1 @mcmilkdee @specialedmusic @emceeserch @mclyte @chipfu @erick_sermon @doitalldu @therealgrandpuba @djpremier @darealgregnice #smoothb @blacksheepdres @therealclsmooth @realpeterock darealmonielove @youngmc89 @chubblive @officialbigdaddykane @robbasemusic @kidfromkidnplay @the_playgroundz @darealpepa @saltnpepaofficial @speech__ @rasadon @eshe2xgrammy @treachtribe @unclevinrock ❤️ You are my heroes. And to all 122,000 people that tuned in, I am truly grateful. 🎙👑🎙#PassTheMic @rockthebells @behindtherhymetv @twitch

A post shared by DJ Cassidy (@djcassidy) on Aug 5, 2020 at 9:13pm PDT

Cassidy explains: "In the heat of the pandemic, in the middle of the quarantine, I was facetiming with my good friend and mentor Verdine White of Earth, Wind & Fire. Verdine has grown to be a close friend whom I truly admire, and he and I go to dinner every month or so and, obviously, we were not able to do that. So we were on a Facetime call catching up and while I was talking to him, his song, ‘That's The Way of the World,’ came on my speakers. And ‘That's The Way of The World’ is my favorite Earth, Wind & Fire song and on a regular day, it sends a chill down my spine. But being that the world was in flux and everyone was in their homes, separate from each other, [and] being that I was looking into his eyes as I heard the song, a kind of special feeling came over me. And I said, 'You know, I'm very lucky that I have so many relationships with all of my heroes of music and I can hear their music in their company.' And I said, 'Wouldn't it be amazing if I could find some way to give that special feeling to other people around the world during this crazy time. And I said, 'Well, if I can connect my musical heroes from home to home, perhaps I can give people this feeling that I'm feeling right now. And perhaps I can use that as a way to pay homage to the heroes around the world fighting for health.' So therein lies the foundation of the whole idea."

That spark ultimately evolved into Pass The Mic Vol. 1, which saw some of the biggest R&B stars of the late '70s and the '80s performing their greatest hits from the comfort of their homes, for the world to see. The event, which was streamed live on Twitch before being uploaded to Cassidy's Instagram page, was a big hit, amassing upwards of twenty thousand viewers, prompting the DJ to follow up with a second volume geared towards his first love: Hip-Hop. Airing this past Wednesday (Aug. 5), Pass The Mic Vol. 2 saw DJ Cassidy summoning a slew of his friends, who just happen to be among the greatest rap artists of all-time, to join him in a cipher of the most pivotal rap records of the '80s and early '90s. DJ Premier, of the legendary rap group Gang Starr, spoke on DJ Cassidy approaching him to be a part of the massive celebration. "When Cassidy texted me the links to VOLUME 1, I was blown away by the people he chose," Premier shares. "And it kept getting more and more exciting as the songs progressed to wonder who's next. Even the way he sequenced it..."

Beginning with Run of Run DMC performing "Sucker M.C.'s," the nearly forty minute set included appearances from the likes of LL Cool J, Chuck D, Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, MC Lyte, Kid N' Play and Naughty By Nature, all of whom tear the house down, albeit virtually from the comfort of their own. The session includes many magical moments and is filled with a love for one another, as well as the culture that brings us all together.

With the second volume in the series having took place, with many more to come, VIBE spoke with DJ Cassidy via phone about the genesis of Pass The Mic, what the process entailed putting the first two volumes together, the healing and unification of music, and how Black music has had an indelible impact on his life and career.

VIBE: The first volume of Pass The Mic included appearances by Earth, Wind & Fire, New Edition, Bobby Brown, Kool & The Gang, Patrice Rushen, and other stars of the '70s '80s. What made you kick off the series celebrating that particular era?

DJ Cassidy: I think two main reasons come to mind. First of all, the Facetime call with Verdine White was really the genesis of the concept, so it was that call that inspired the whole idea. And it was that song, the first song on Vol. 1 that was playing, so to me, it was automatic that I should go to that era of music to set the project off. But the second reason is kind of a bigger picture, which is I really believe that that music is the most feel-good, uplifting music ever created. It is undeniably body-moving and for two-thirds of my life, I've traveled the world, making people dance and there is no music that uplifts, inspires people, makes people smile and makes people dance than the r&b music of the '70s and the '80s. So when the world is going through what it's going through and people wanna smile and people wanna be uplifted and people wanna unite, there really was no greater music to channel to try to do such a thing, to achieve such a mission.

How would you describe an episode of Pass The Mic and what are some unique wrinkles users can expect?

Pass The Mic is an interactive mixtape delivered in a way that you've never experienced before. As I drop each record, you experience that record with the artist who recorded that record and you connect with those artists from home to home. And through that personal experience, you're left with an emotional experience of music unlike any before. And I'd be lying if I said I thought that all the way through when I started, I didn't. A lightbulb went off for me, I saw the big picture and I went for it, but I didn't quite understand how emotional the response would be until I premiered it.

You've also mentioned how the times we're in, with the COVID-19 pandemic, was also a factor in you creating Pass The Mic. What are your thoughts on how other DJs and producers have been adapting to the climate we're in?

Well, I think the pandemic has been such a tough time for everyone around the world, yet it's also been a great time for DJs to be the best versions of themselves. At our core, we DJs unite people. At our foundation we bring people together through music and no one exemplified that better, bigger and faster than D-Nice. In the first week of the pandemic, he found a way to unite the world through DJing and it was truly beautiful to watch then and remains beautiful to watch now.

You've been spinning professionally for upwards of two decades and have an expansive list of high-profile artists and musicians at your disposal. What has the recruiting process for Pass The Mic entailed and how would you describe the artists' reception to the idea of it all?

Well, the process has certainly evolved, I would say that's the best word to use. The recruitment process for Vol. 1 was entirely different from Vol. 2 'cause while recruiting artists for Vol.1, I had nothing to show. All I had was a crazy idea that some people understood and some people didn't, but what they did exhibit was a unanimous trust in me and for that, I was not only grateful, but extremely honored. We're talking about some of the most legendary r&b artists of all time, they don't need to do my Pass The Mic idea. And they all took a leap of faith and they put their trust in me and I think they were all excited by the results and that really was the biggest reward. The recruiting process for Vol. 2 was entirely different because not only had many of the artists now seen Vol. 1, but for those who didn't I of course had Vol. 1 to show them. One of the greatest experiences was calling Big Daddy Kane, one of the greatest rappers of all-time.

Now, I haven't spoken to Kane on the phone in years. In fact, I might have never spoken to Kane on the phone before. I first developed a relationship when he performed at my birthday party in New York many years ago, over ten years ago. And every time we see him, it's all love and, of course, I admire, idolize and look up to him and I wasn't even sure if I had the right number I called, I got a voicemail, it wasn't his voice. I text him, I said 'Kane, it's Cassidy, is this still you?'  And he called me within five minutes and I picked up and go, 'Kane!' And his first words were, 'Look, if you're calling about something having to do with Pass The Mic, I'm in,' and that was one of the greatest phone calls I've ever had in my life. And I will never forget that one sentence. Big Daddy Kane, the great, the legend, the forefather, he not only saw it, but loved it, felt that's why I might be calling and was down to take part in whatever I was doing and there's really no words to describe that feeling. And that sentiment was common in many of my phone calls  that a lot of the artists I was calling had seen Vol. 1 and were really emotional in their response to it. So the recruiting process from Vol. 1 and 2 were very different, in that respect.

For the debut volume of Pass The Mic, you partnered with Twitch, a streaming platform that's been continuing to gain steam. What spurred you to use that particular platform and is that partnership official?

Firstly, what I was doing wasn't possible to present to people on Instagram. I love Instagram, it's the platform I use the most, it's how I share my life and times, but there was no way I could've presented Pass The Mic through Instagram. So I was looking for a platform that allowed for a live experience, one which I could treat as a live event and there were several: YouTube, Facebook and Twitch. And Twitch seemed like a great home for the launch, their platform, their technology, their fanbase. They're extremely forward thinking and it was a great place, but it was also a partnership with the Behind The Rhyme channel. Behind The Rhyme is a channel on Twitch that presents  lots of great content having to do with hip-hop and r&b, specifically classic hip-hop and r&b, but all kinds of hip-hop and r&b. So it was a great kind of home for Vol. 1 and it worked out well, so I've chosen to host a live event for Vol. 2 there as well. And I've also partnered with Rock The Bells on this edition, they represent all things classic hip-hop so it's self-explanatory. The partnership is a no-brainer. LL Cool J and his brand represent everything that Pass The Mic Vol. 2 strives to represent, the beauty and inspiration of classic hip-hop.

The second episode of Pass The Mic aired this past Wednesday (August 5), and saw you putting the focus on the golden era of hip-hop, with legends like LL Cool J, Run-DMC and Salt-N-Pepa all appearing on the show. How would you describe your relationship with that era of hip-hop and how the music inspired you as a DJ?  

Well, I grew up in that era of hip-hop. I grew up memorizing the words of the hip-hop records of the mid '80s, late '80s, and early '90s, that was my childhood.  Hip-Hop is my first love, hip-hop is why I became a DJ, hip-hop is why I asked my parents to buy me two turntables and a mixer for my birthday when I turned ten. And these artists, the artists who I've included in Pass The Mic Vol. 2 are my true heroes. They are the artists I looked up to as a child, they are the artists I idolized as a child and to this day, I hold them up on the highest of pedestal.  They define the way I walk, the way I talk, the way I danced, the way I dress, the way I fought, they gave me identity. Without these artists, I don't really know what my identity would be. I became who I am through this music, so this volume really meant a lot to me, the last twenty-one days have been surreal.

Yeah, for sure. The reason the past twenty-one days have been so surreal is not only because I got to Zoom with all of my heroes of hip-hop, but because after we knocked out what we had to do we stayed on for another half an hour or more talking. And sometimes I'd be on with some of these artists for an hour and I'd be asking them questions and they would tell me stories and I just heard the greatest anecdotes. And sometimes with those whom I had relationships with, we talked about stories that involved me and us and those were incredibly special, for obvious reasons, but all the stories were just, like, gems. They were just dropping gems on me. I have all that footage and I hope, at some point, there is another component of Pass The Mic where I share those stories.

What would you say are three records from that period that personally resonate with you?

"Sucker M.C.’s" is a very important song to me, as it is to hip-hop culture, as it is I believe, to pop culture. "Sucker MCs," in my opinion, is the archetype of a hip-hop record. It's so brilliantly simple and it's powerful because of its brilliant simplicity. All that's on there is a kick, a snare, a clap, and rhymes. There's no chorus, it's only four verses. And if you think about it, on paper, it's the simplest hip-hop record ever made and it's just so magical because if an alien came from out of space like, 'What is hip-hop?' I would play them “Sucker M.C.'s.” So, for me, it was really important for that reason, to set off this particular volume with that record.

Another record that's really important to me is Arrested Development "People Everyday." It's not only one of my favorite hip-hop records of all-time, it's one of my favorite records of all-time, it just simply exudes joy and celebration. And Speech is not only an incredible rapper, but an incredible singer and his voice is just simply something you can feel. He's uplifting, he's truly a unifying spirit and I'm so happy he was willing to get down 'cause he really brings the celebration to this.

"Hip Hop Hooray," which closes out Vol. 2, is really important to me. As a child, I worshipped the ground Treach walked on. I thought Treach was the coolest person to ever walk the face of this earth. And Treach and Vinnie are the sweetest guys, I've known them since I was a child and they've always been really supportive of me and my career and that song is special. No matter where you go in the world, no matter what music someone loves, no matter how old they are, no matter who they are, no matter where they are, everyone sings along to that chorus and knows exactly what to do with their hands. And there's something really beautiful about that so there's no better song to end this with.

The first two episodes of Pass The Mic have been geared towards celebrating Black icons in music, across various genres. In the age of Black Lives Matter and social injustice, what are your thoughts on how music and the performance of it can help bring forth unity and healing?

I think there is no greater unifying power than music and I think there is no greater healing force than soul music. And soul music doesn't just mean r&b music, it means hip-hop, too, hip-hop comes from soul. And I think we're living in a time of divisiveness, bigotry and of separation and I think we, as humanity, can look to any one thing to uplift people and unify, it would be music. And you mentioned Black music, my life wouldn't be what it is without the music of Black artists, hip-hop and R&B has defined my life in so many ways, and not only in my career. It's my source of inspiration, it's my source of culture, it's my source of style, it's really my source of happiness. And it's through the music of soul artists and hip-hop artists that I've been able to travel the world and make people dance and make people smile.

What do you see Pass The Mic evolving into moving forward and what do you hope viewers walk away with after viewing an episode of Pass The Mic?

I hope people walk away feeling uplifted, that's it. That's the goal, to uplift. And by sharing these records in a unique way, I've been able to uplift, then I've done my job. The magic is in the music and I'm just a messenger. What do I see for the future? Well, at this point, sky's the limit. I didn't anticipate quite an emotional response from people and it's been quite overwhelming. As I said, this was a little passion project to stay creative, to connect with my heroes and to put a smile on a few faces and it turned into something bigger than I could've ever imagined. There's certainly gonna be more volumes and what the future has in store, we shall see.

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Photo by Jax Teller (@_30onme)

Beats, Blackness, and Revolution: A Conversation With Jay Versace

Jay Versace doesn’t care who you thought he was. He never has, and never will. Since his influencer ascension through comedic skits via the now-defunct social media platform, Vine, in 2016, Jay has used his platform to amplify Black spirituality, Black creativity, and Black mental health. Through sharing resources to his large following on social media, he’s continuing to do so even now amid these trying times. One of the several things that he’s been doing to help maintain his inner peace as the country is enthralled in protest has been producing music.

Versace made his first beat in May of 2018, and it was actually met with contention from fans who were only familiar with his comedic side. “When I tweeted I was trying to make music, so many people were like, ‘This is what this is gonna sound like,’ and were sending the craziest gifs and memes and I was like, ‘Damn, y'all really think I have no taste,’” he says when recounting the first time he shared his music on social media. “(Laughs) It was very intense and overwhelming, but I was like you know what, f**k them and kept doing it, kept trying.” And he did exactly that, fine-tuned his beat-making craft by digging into the soulful music he was raised on. Thus, the biggest testament to his growth as a producer has definitely been his early 2020 appearance on Buffalo, New York rapper and Griselda collective member Westside Gunn’s latest critically acclaimed album Pray for Paris, where his beat on the self-titled track “Versace” found him in the production credits next to rap royalty like DJ Premier and Tyler, The Creator. Since this major moment in his music career, Jay has been active in both the studio and on the Internet, spreading awareness about Black rights.

There have been a lot of performative activism surrounding the most recent protests against police brutality following the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black folk in this country. Brands—and some white allies alike—have cleared their conscience with a lukewarm effort, a solid week of Instagram story reshares of burning cop cars and picket signs, and empty PR promises to “stand by the Black community.” Jay recognizes this and believes white allies need to protest in their own communities first before leaving to go protest in others’. “They go to our neighborhood to protest their neighborhood (Laughs). Like, nah, go to your neighborhood to protest. That’s why I really want to see white people using their own in their own spaces that we can’t get to because of their privilege.”

Jay always speaks his mind across his social media platforms, and he remains jovial, yet candid in our conversation about his criticism on certain people profiting from Black culture and the Black plight. His stance is very clear: if you profit off the Black dollar, then you have an obligation to speak up for Black rights. “You have to realize, if you benefit off the Black community, this is how you give them back all that they’ve given you,” Jay says. “If you’re sitting in a mansion and just sitting on the Black dollar based on what you’ve been doing, then this is how you contribute.”

As a 22-year-old queer Black man, he realizes he has to fight for his rights not only in a racist American society but also in a hip-hop space that is often plagued with homophobia. “I really have to work extra hard to find my own style and my own taste and just perfect what I’m doing because people see somebody that’s queer and they automatically don’t want to associate themselves,” Jay says when asked about carving out his own space in the music world. “Because they’re homophobic, or because they don’t want to be saying ‘Oh, what was you doing working with him? What were y’all doing in the studio?’” Despite this, Jay’s individuality has never faltered and he has turned his personality into one of his most endearing qualities. A close friendship with the ethereal Erykah Badu has also helped him maintain a deep relationship with his ancestry and spirituality, and he prides himself on how much he’s grown into his Blackness.

Even over Zoom, Jay’s energy and spirit erased our digital distance. Despite him living in California now, the lighthearted—often misunderstood —sarcasm that only two people from Jersey can understand blended immediately between us. He is deeply rooted in his beliefs, unapologetically himself, and simultaneously still growing into his newly discovered goals and ambitions. In a conversation with VIBE, Jay Versace talks about the current revolution for Black rights, how his spiritual roots have influenced his soulful beats, and why his future looks all-Black.

What are your feelings like surrounding the current revolution taking place?

It’s mixed emotions. There’s so much good stuff happening, there’s so much bad stuff happening. There’s so much of just both happening at the same time. I’m worried about my mental health and just how I’m, like, trying to be a better version of me so that I can continue to be a voice or some type of spokesperson for people. So half of me is super into it, I’m ready to unpack. I’m ready to change and make everything all-Black, and then on the other side I’m like, “Okay, let me get my mental health together.”

And speaking of things being all-Black, you’re one of the few influencers who have always really advocated for Black rights on your platform. What are your thoughts on a lot of the performative activism we’ve been seeing from brands and influencers lately?

Something told me something like this was going to happen before. A couple of years ago, something told me it’s going to be some people and some brands, and I’ve already just seen it. This type of stuff’s been kind of happening, where brands or people or influencers don’t really care about the Black community, but they know it’s a crowd they need to have a grasp on in order to get them to where they're trying to go in their career. It’s very selfish. It’s something you really just have to analyze. Like, who’s actually trying to contribute towards change, and who’s trying to just contribute towards their change.

I hate it, and that’s why I’ve been calling brands out. So many brands benefit off of Black people and the Black community, and yet they don’t actually help Black people or they don’t actually go into the community and see what needs help. They actually make it worse. They actually make the community worse by the image that they show Black people as.

I think you are the leader of a vanguard of budding Black creatives, personalities, and young people. How have you seen people our age mobilizing right now, and what do you want to see more of?

I see people our age just using their voice. We’re in a completely different time period, where, like, our ancestors gave us the knowledge. They gave us books, they gave us interviews, they spoke out. So I really see people around me, and influencers using their voice but it’s way more powerful and it’s way more impactful now because we have social media where everybody can hear and see everything, and that’s what’s kind of scary. It’s like, I’m not sure if things are worse or better than what our ancestors went through, because they didn’t have cameras to film everything. So now we’re in a time where everybody has their camera out, everybody's using their voices, like every 5-minutes it’s a viral video. That’s what I appreciate about what’s going on right now, we can actually document every single thing.

And what we need to do more of, I feel like it’s a group effort. It’s some stuff that white people need to do more, like, it’s some stuff that white people need to do more of! (Laughs) And then with Black people, we have to organize. We really have to come together and organize better, but just as far as white people I feel like they need to leave us alone and they need to go to their neighborhoods and make changes within their community.

Have you been able to get out and march at all?

No, I haven’t gone out to protest because the way my anxiety is set up. I’m just seeing so much going on with the police. It’s like wars out there, they going back-and-forth, they throwing gas at people, they shooting rubber bullets, and that’s just something that my anxiety won’t let me participate in. I’ve been protesting online.

And people are finally starting to talk about it now, but all the Black trauma does such damaging things to the Black psyche as well.

That’s another thing, I want to add to what I want to see more of. I want to see Black people take care of their mental health because, that first week when things were really hectic, we don’t know how our minds are going to process that within the next couple of months and years. It’s stuff from when I was a little kid that I didn’t realize was traumatic to me, and it’s just now processing. So we really need to take advantage of what we need to do with our mental health because that’s eventually going to take its toll. And even right now it’s wearing down on people’s minds and I just really want people to see that mental health is important.

You’ve always been really transparent about your struggles with anxiety. What’s been helping you keep your peace during these super trying times?

I’ve been making music, I’ve been telling my friends 'cause my friends have been calling me stressed out. I’m like, “Just make music.” Make music because if you think about the other time period where this kind of happened before, with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, there was a lot of music that was being based on what was going on. I feel like everybody was creating. If you’re an artist, whatever you do, you can contribute to what’s going on by using your skills. So I’ve just been trying to do whatever I do best, and that zens me out.

Do you think artists have an obligation to use their platform to talk about social issues?

Yes, just yes. You have to realize, if you benefit off the Black community, this is how you give them back all that they’ve given you. If you’re sitting in a mansion and just sitting on the Black dollar based on what you’ve been doing, then this is how you contribute. These people need you, these people give to you so give back to them. I don’t understand how that’s so hard. Like, I understand taking some time out to process it and then speak out, but to not speak out at all; I feel like that’s kind of messed up. These people are actually paying your bills, so there is a responsibility to use your voice because not everybody has that following where they can get points across, so we need that. We need people to speak up for us.

The LGBTQ+ Community has always been deeply rooted in social activism. Can you talk about any experiences you’ve had fighting for your voice to be heard as not only a Black man but also a Black queer man in this music space?

I feel like, one thing about music is that being someone that’s queer in music is very difficult. It’s so much homophobia. That’s really the genre I’m going into, that underground hip-hop is so homophobic. So it’s like, I really have to work extra hard to find my own style and my own taste and just perfect what I’m doing because people see somebody that’s queer and they automatically don’t want to associate themselves. Because they’re homophobic, or because they don’t want to be saying, “Oh, what was you doing working with him, what were y’all doing in the studio.”Like, every time I work in the studio with somebody and it comes up it’s like: “Oh, what was y’all doing. What did you have to do for that.” And I’m like, “Yo, we can’t just be two creative people? It has to be something about sexuality?” So it’s like, just what I’m going through right now and trying to make music and being in this homophobic-ass genre, it’s very stressful.

But I feel like it’s changing a lot. A lot of people are coming to their senses and feeling more comfortable with their own sexuality and not having to intimidate other people.

JAYVERSACE · CROSSMYMIND

You’re also boldly independent, I think that’s one of your strongest personality traits. When navigating this music space, how valuable do you think that trait is?

It’s very important just to be stern with what you believe in. I just also feel like, not everything you want to do is worth doing. Not everybody is worth working with. Not everybody deserves to be in your creative space. I know people really want opportunities to come to them, but not every opportunity is worth it. Like sometimes, and definitely as a queer person, if know you’re working with somebody that’s homophobic, is it really worth it? I think about my kids, what do I want to do to set an example for my kids. I want my kids to feel like, whatever sexuality they are, they walk into whatever room or situation as they are and they won’t change for nobody. They will only allow certain sh*t around them, so that’s what I’ve really been trying to do. Yeah, I play sometimes, but as far as allowing certain things to happen around me, I won’t allow. Because you’ll get run over.

I also want to touch on your other Instagram for a minute too, Jayversay. I like to call it your Sprinsta(spiritual Instagram). You’re deeply in touch with your roots, can you talk about how that plays a part in the messages you spread on your platform and your beats? 

My spirituality, just where I come from, my family, everybody was just super Black. And even though I grew up around people who were celebratory of being Black, I also did not want to be Black. I grew up not wanting to be Black. I grew up looking at people on magazines, looking at people on TV, looking at certain Black skin tones. I always felt like I was not accepted.

But now, a couple of years ago, I just started to realize, like, look at my history. I started to really dive deep into these books that my family used to always read and just go deep into my history. I’m like, damn. It just made me very angry, that I had all this kept from me for so long. First I got angry, I went through those emotions, then I just got more proud. I wanted to celebrate it, so I’ve always been about Black culture, Black music, all of that since. And since I first started making videos I’ve just tried to help Black people.

Can you talk about the beautiful relationship you have with the ethereal Erykah Badu? How has she helped guide you in your spiritual journey?

Yeah, Erykah Badu helped me make my ancestor altar, she’s the one who told me I needed one. She’s really, as far as my spiritual journey, made me feel comfortable. She made me feel like, okay I’m not going too far. Cause I was really diving deep into my spirituality, but she was like, “Keep going.” Ever since we first came in contact, she’s always just been trying to help me with everything I’ve been doing. She still hits me up every other week, just asking if I’m good. She’s just a very good person, besides her being a celebrity. Just one of the most beautiful humans I’ve ever come across. I really love and appreciate all the help she’s given me. I don’t know where I would be without her right now.

You were on one of the best rap tapes that dropped this year, and you also have a really expansive knowledge of music, even a brief scrolling of your SoundCloud reflects that. That Clark Sisters sample for “Versace” was beautiful. What got you into listening to the classics? 

Just how I was raised listening to soulful music. My grandparents, my parents, grew up around rappers and singers and it just stuck with me. I don’t really know, I guess it was always a part of me because anything I remember from liking music has always been the same type of music. I think it’s just built inside of me to like a certain type of style of music, like classic stuff.

There’s a funny tweet of yours about how people are so obsessed with 808’s nowadays. What do you try to avoid when making your beats?

I feel people use 808’s and that same snare because that’s louder than their voice, so people hide under drums because they know they not saying anything. Like, they know if they actually said it out loud without rapping it, it would not make any sense. It would sound corny, so people hide behind 808’s and those same drums because it sounds good, but that’s about it.

I try to avoid sounding like people that I’m compared to. I try to avoid sounding like: “Oh, this is like that!” If I hear that, I’m like, “Okay, bet I’m never going to make music like this again because whatever people hear from me, we already have that.” Don’t compare me to anything, I want to be my own person. So I let people tell me “what I sound like,” so I can not sound like that.

Can you speak on the work you’ve been doing with Freddie Gibbs? You said you were working on a project with him.

Freddie Gibbs is a crackhead, so whatever we’re working on is going to take some time. (Laughs) I’ve sent him beats he’s said he’s writing to, but he stays writing to them and I look on his [Instagram] story and he’s on a boat. I sent him the beats and I’m like, “You know what? I don’t know when I’ma expect a project.” I just know I sent him the beats and he hit me up every now and then like, “Yeah, I wrote to this,” and I’m like “Alright.” So I really don’t know, that’s Freddie Gibbs so I really don’t know. The ball is in his court.

Thoughts on Alfredo?

I loved the album. I actually had the same sample as one of the songs on that album.

Really? Which one?

The one where he was like “Babies & Fools." I sampled that the exact same way and was going to send it to Freddie and I’m glad I didn’t cause Alchemist did it.

I mean, the fact that you and Alchemist are thinking on the same wavelength is impressive as hell.

Yeah, that’s what I keep thinking! I’m like, “Hmm, maybe I’m about to get the next Grammy.” (Laughs) Because me and Alchemist made the same beat by accident, that’s insane to me.

I know you’ve also been in the lab with J.I.D and saw somewhere Ari Lennox too, what’s up with that?

We're just working. Me and J.I.D, we damn near made a whole tape. I’ve never heard this side of J.I.D in my life, so I don’t know what’s about to happen when this gets released because this is like, some of the best music I’ve made. Just with J.I.D and how he’s articulating his words and telling stories, he literally brings the beats to life. He creates stories, it’s some crazy sh*t that we made.

JAYVERSACE · KOOL-AID JAMMERS

Ari Lennox, I don’t know how she works so fast, but she’s like Walt Disney. She works very fast, so I’m excited to work with her.

What’s a dream collaboration of yours?

Damn, that’s so loaded. (Laughs) I would love to work with Jay-Z. Jay-Z or Kendrick [Lamar], I would love to work with either of them. Just how much they inspire me and how my beats sound. I literally make beats for them, so I would love to work with them.

You made one of your first beats on May 14, 2018. Now, over 2 years later, what are you most proud of in your growth as a producer?

Oh my God! I didn’t even know that. I’m most proud of myself for continuing to do it because when I tweeted I was trying to make music, so many people were like, “This is what this is gonna sound like” and were sending the craziest GIF’s and memes and I was like, “Damn, y'all really think I have no taste?” (Laughs) It was very intense and overwhelming, but I was like you know what, f**k them and kept doing it, kept trying. Kept trying new styles and sounds out, and the fact that I kept going and it’s gotten me this far and now I can say that this is my job, that’s what I’m most proud of. Just listening to my own voice.

You said that Donald Glover, Tyler, the Creator, A$AP Rocky, and Drake started everything really in terms of helping shape our generation. I know you’re just getting started, but when you’re just an old head from Jersey, what is the most important thing you want to leave behind?

Damn, I don’t know. I want to leave behind everything. I want my whole journey to be analyzed, from beginning to end. I don’t want nothing to be left out, I want the whole thing to be seen and experienced so that people can get inspired and do whatever they want to do. That’s the only reason why we’re on this planet, to show other people how to be on this planet. So I want to leave behind my whole experience.

I remember you talked in a Fader interview about how layered you are. I don’t think making beats is something new for you, I think it’s just a new part of yourself that you’re sharing. If you made your first beat a little over 2 years ago, and just got featured on Pray for Paris, where do you hope to be 2 years from now?

Two years from now, I expect for me to have a successful production company, successful music career, modeling, acting, architecture. Any type of thing that I want to do. Everything just thriving, and Blackness all over the f**king place.

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Catching Up with Koffee

There's still a lot of time left in Summer 2020, but on the last day of July, we declared Koffee's "Lockdown" Boomshots' official 2020 Summer anthem. Produced by Dane "Raygad" Ray from the Unruly camp, the song finds Koffee asking all of the questions everybody in the world is asking themselves right now. What will the future be like "when the quarantine thing done and everybody touch road?" As soon as we heard this tune, we knew it was outta here! (That was way before we saw the video with cameos from Popcaan and Dre Island.) More than just a COVID-era contemplation, "Lockdown" is also a poignant love song that speaks to the challenges of romance during a time of the viral pandemic. As such, it represents a milestone in Koffee's catalog.

At the ripe old age of 20, the youngest Reggae Grammy winner in history has given us her first love song—and without overthinking it one bit, she might just have given us a follow-up to rival her breakthrough smash, "Toast." When you hear Koffee sing "if you love me, you should let me...," it's clear she is in her feelings on this one. Of course, everybody wants to know who this song was inspired by, but all we can say about that is just "cool." In her first interview since "Lockdown" dropped, Koffee tapped in with Boomshots' Reshma B on VIBE's Instagram Live and spoke about the inspiration behind the tune.

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BOOMSHOTS: So much has happened and obviously, with the lockdown, we haven’t seen each other.

KOFFEE: That’s true.

We haven’t spoken since you won the Grammy so let me start with a big congratulations.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

You made history there. You’re the first female and the youngest to win a Reggae Grammy, as I’m sure you know.

So I’ve heard, so I’ve heard. (Laughs) Thank you.

How was that experience for you?

It was amazing for me being able to be there and represent Jamaica. Because at the end of the day, I feel like—even to be real nobody knew me at the ceremony. As you know the reggae category and some other categories are separated from like big categories like rap and stuff like that. So we’re not in the big ceremony. But it felt so good going up on the stage and collecting something on behalf of Jamaica, on behalf of reggae. There’s a lot to give thanks for regarding that. It’s good to be able fe spread light and just inspire people.

You know there was a time hip-hop was not getting televised either. 

Yeah, so it’s a journey.

We all know someone who’s lost someone in this pandemic. It’s difficult adjusting to this new normal. How have you been coping with the lockdown?

For me, thankfully, I haven’t been directly affected by the COVID, and I don't’ know anybody who’s been directly affected. But I send my prayers out to those who have been and those who find it difficult during these times whether financially, even emotionally. It’s a very very very hard time and I can tell even out in the streets it shows. Before you had homeless people and beggars but now when you look pon them face it’s so rough. Me know say it tough out there. So me just a try to put that energy—channel it into anything I can, which for me is music. You know I’ve been working on my album.

How did the “Lockdown” song come about?

The song was actually a very spur-of-the-moment song. I had been planning to go into the studio with some musicians, like some guitarists, pianists, drummers, and stuff. And for the time being, that had been kinda stalled because of the whole COVID. So I was supposed to be in the UK actually doing a camp. And I was just going to the studio—you know Popcaan?

Of course, we know Poppy. Shout out to the Unruly Boss!

Sorry, my bad... I take it back! I take it back! Poppy has a studio, right? So I started goin’ by his studio to just record some stuff like in the meantime while everything is kinda shut down. And there I met a producer named Dane Ray. Now Poppy have a song weh him release the other day, I think it name “Numbers Don’t Lie” and him say, “More gal fe me and Dane Ray.” You get me? So you know say Dane Ray is like him bredren and stuff. So me set a link there and Dane Ray play me a track, which was “Lockdown” instrumental. And me just decide inna the moment, say, ‘Yo, let’s just write some lyrics to it. Some nice melodies that I’m feeling.’ And I literally just did it. And then probably like the week after that I just listen to the song and said “I really like this.” And me just call my manager like, “Yo, let’s do a video. This is who I want in it. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.” We call producer, call everybody, call videographer, and we just got it done and then we just release it. It was so—we didn’t even think twice. Me never think it woulda reach this far.

Everything went natural. 

Yeah, just so natural.

And now you're hot like thermos!

It’s so crazy right now.

This is the first time we've heard a love song from Koffee. I hear you say things like, “Givin’ you my heart beg you take it from me.” It’s so touching to hear that!

Yo, that was so serious. I swear. Me nah go answer no question about who and the speculations. But I’m tellin’ you that song was so real, I meant that sh*t. (Laughs) I mean that!

Watch the full interview above.

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