It’s no surprise the release of JAY-Z’s 4:44 is at the forefront of 2018’s Grammy nominations. To mainstream media, it was the response to Lemonade they were fiendin' for. To the rest of us, it was the confessions of a black man who has lived from behind the beige bricks of a public housing complex to the high mansion ceilings of the one percent. Underneath marital confessions bared an emotional molding of the man he has become; it’s also the memoir rap didn’t know it needed. With the hip-hop generational gap getting wider by the stream, JAY’s olive branch to acts like Young Thug (“Family Feud”) and callouts of wypipo’s fascination with black pain (“Moonlight”) were just a few gems 4:44 had to offer. The music may have caught the attention of fans, but those appreciative of rich cinema received a treat through thought-provoking music videos and short films featuring figures like Chris Rock, Trevor Noah, Meek Mill, with adored directors Ava DuVernay (“Family Feud”) and Neal Brennan (“Footnote Series”) behind the camera.
With Mr. Carter’s eight Grammy nominations comes a strong possibility of winning Album of The Year, an award that has only been held in the hands of two other legendary hip-hop rooted acts; Lauryn Hill in 1999 (The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill) and Outkast in 2004 (Speakerboxx/The Love Below). With Kendrick Lamar and JAY both being contenders in the category, we’re partially removed from the days when The Recording Academy decided not to televise or include hip-hop and R&B categories. This time, they have no choice. Announced in June 2017, a rap nominations review committee was effectively implemented to reflect this weekend’s show.
2017 may have gifted the mogul with a successful tour, an induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and a freestyle from his eldest daughter, Blue Ivy, but 2018 can very well match that magic.
VIBE spoke to a long list of artists, creatives and friends of Mr. Carter to truly understand what makes JAY, well, JAY. What we've learned was the importance of perspective and how well the legend has impressed fellow MCs like Talib Kweli, singers like SZA and inspired social justice warriors like Van Jones. “Outside of his art, the most important thing I’m excited about is his activism,” explained the activist, news commentator and author. “He’s willing to see through any situations to talk about the, the bigger problem, the bigger issue. I think most civil rights guys have a megaphone, but no one has a bigger megaphone than JAY-Z."
From albums to lyrics to influence, see some of the best takes on JAY’s legacy below. And yes, a cut from Kingdom Come is mentioned.
I got put on to Reasonable Doubt when I got older, but my first JAY-Z album was The Blueprint. When it comes to songs, I have three favorites--and people are going to think I’m crazy--but, the first two are, “Change Clothes,” [and] “Money Ain’t A Thang” with Jermaine Dupri. He told me that story of how he picked up JAY from the airport “in the Ferrari or Jaguar, switchin' four lanes/with the top down screamin' out money ain't a thang,” heading to the studio to record that song. The last JAY song, would be “Hard Knock Life.” I remember listening as a kid and thinking, ‘Who is this? Why is this so hard?’ What I appreciate about JAY-Z is that he made his projects for the world. He made people connect with Marcy [Projects]. He’s the reason why I bought my first NY fitted and it was faithful. It was the reason why I walked around with the du-rag not tied up. For our age range, JAY is still a living legend. When you see him talking with Elliott Wilson, or tweeting about Tee Grizzley or Playboi Carti, it just shows that he’s in the know. He's our hip-hop Dad.
Platinum-selling rapper, songwriter, director
I love JAY. “The Prelude” is my favorite song. The latest album isn’t my favorite, but it impressed the sh*t out of me. To be at his age at this time in life... If I could do that when I’m his age, that would be so sick. I don’t know if I’m that good yet, but yeah, hopefully. He’s amazing to me, a true idol.
Founder of FakeShoreDrive.com
My favorite lyric would have to be, “A wise man told me don't argue with fools/‘cause people from a distance can't tell who is who.” To me, he’s a testament to longevity and to what he means in the game. He’s had a strong 20-plus [year] career. He’s still one of the most relevant rappers and he constantly finds a way to break the internet or make headlines. Every time he drops something or does something, it's an event. I don't think any of his peers can do that. You can probably count those people on one hand. He has a strong chance of winning a Grammy for it. He’s been able to sustain, maintain and be a dominant force for 20-plus years. A lot of artists can learn from that.
Grammy-winning singer, songwriter
What turned me onto JAY was “Feelin It.” He’s just a pioneer and a force. What he’s done for the culture--just as he’s grown into the music and mogul that he is--is just so admirable. Apart from him being an awesome lyricist, his great Brooklyn swag and his story is important. Just to hear where he’s come from and what he’s been through to be a boss and a mogul is something that’s really positive for our culture to see.
Reasonable Doubt is my favorite album and “Regrets” is a standout. That song in itself and that plight of a dealer, in life in general having regrets, was rich. I actually went back to that album because The Blueprint was the favorite, but while going back and doing research, and for that to be his first one, it was amazing. Not only on the production end, but the content, too.
Mine would have to be The Black Album. Dang, he’s got so many lines. My favorite line from him came off his “Grammy Family Freestyle,” when he said, ‘Same sword they knight you they gon' good night you with.’ That was the hardest line to me.
"JAY-Z is like the school counselor when it comes to hip-hop. He has a wealth of information for us that will help us to a college of choice, if you will." —Erykah Badu
Freelance editor, writer
I'd go with The Blueprint because it's solidified him as the people's champion precisely when he (and JAY had beefs to win) needed it. You can argue for other albums, but JAY isn't JAY-Z without The Blueprint in the same way Prince isn't Prince without Purple Rain.
Cyhi The Prynce
Grammy-nominated rapper, songwriter
Reasonable Doubt because it has so many jewels and life lessons that I can live off of 'til today. That album is a souvenir, or better yet, an almanac. You can just bring it out and it can still get you around the world. I think just that alone taught me a lot, so much about manhood. It’s not even about the dope game or anything, it was about manhood.
4:44 is my favorite. I’ve been a fan in the past, but I’ve always felt like he could do more with his platform. On 4:44, it was like, ‘I get it.’ I’m not a hater, so I’ve always known how dope he is. You can feel the growth on “Family Feud.” It’s my favorite song, but outside of that, the “F**k living rich and dying broke” line is poignant. That’s the antithesis of what he’s been saying his whole career and it’s the antithesis of what most rappers talk about, especially when it comes to financial literacy.
All [of] JAY-Z's albums are my favorite albums. Why? Because he’s the greatest of all time! I’m just being honest. BLESS UP!
Producer, JAY-Z/ATCQ Tour DJ
My favorite is The Blueprint. At that point, he mastered how to make radio singles, but gave you the Reasonable Doubt street sh*t. A perfect balanced album. On top of that, I watched that album being recorded. He had two rooms going at the same time. Record a song in one room, then go in the other room. When that was done, there was another song ready to record in the first room. He finished that album in record speed and only spent a total [of] $300,000 to do it. Very professional work from Hov.
Grammy-nominated singer, songwriter
The first song that resonated with me was “Hard Knock Life.” I watched a lot of musicals as a kid, so I connected to the Annie sample. We didn’t have cable at my Grandma’s house, but there was this sh*t called The Box we’d watch and the video came on. I went to school the next day and asked my classmates did they know of a guy named JAY-Z, and they all looked at me like I was stupid. From then on, it’s been love ever since. He’s one of the greatest rappers to ever do it.
Rapper, singer, songwriter
I can’t say I’ve heard all of his albums, but I do love The Black Album. I know he has way better ones. I know that motherf**ker front to back. My Daddy bought me that and that was the only JAY-Z album he ever got me. My favorite line comes from the new album though; "Ain't no such thing as an ugly billionaire, I'm cute."
Beats 1 Host
Let me go with The Black Album. In retrospect, on The Black Album, JAY-Z is telling you exactly what he is about to do in going to the next level as a rapper in his career. On several points in The Black Album – because remember he was like, I’m retiring this is my last album, etc. etc., right. Did the whole thing, and here we are 14 years after that and he’s telling you, "Yeah, I’m retiring. But I’m about to get to these M’s. I’m about to get to this money. I’m about to level up on y’all. Watch this."
Of course, none of us knew at the time because it had never been done before in rap. JAY-Z is the most important, complete hip-hop artist and rapper of our time. I don’t know how to put it any other way. You can debate all you want about his level of importance to the game, navigating music creation, lyrical content, and skill set on the mic, touring, merch, business, business in music and outside of music. And now in a time where the news cycle features a piece of sh*t president and the sexual assault accusations in Hollywood, JAY-Z, a drug dealer from Brooklyn, the Marcy Projects, is the most positive man in the news. A man who sold drugs and lifted himself up out of the projects is in The New York Times talking about being a father, being married and business accouterments. Hip-hop’s doing that. JAY-Z’s doing that. The fact that anyone can fix their lips and say, "JAY-Z isn’t this or JAY-Z isn’t that." You don’t love hip-hop then. You don’t want to see hip-hop get this far where your brain doesn’t work in a way where you can compute things at this level. He’s changing the narrative and stereotype of what rap is. He has changed what we are, what our capabilities could be to the rest of the world and what’s available to us.
"Civil rights people like myself have a certain amount of credibility or standing in the world, but no one has a platform like JAY-Z. It’s the most unique on the planet." —Van Jones
Rapper, producer and 1/2 of Run The Jewels
I’m gonna say The Blueprint. There’s many to choose from, but that album is just it for me.
Roc Nation executive
Mine would have to be Reasonable Doubt. [Simply for] the hunger of making the transition to change my life for the better. It's the first time I knew I could be better and do something better than selling drugs my whole life.
I would say that the one that I really love is “Song Cry.” JAY-Z is like the school counselor when it comes to hip-hop. He's not an outspoken dictator or anything like that, but if you get into some kind of bind, you'll be sent to the counselor who will help you figure it out. He's not a preacher, he's not a dictator. He has a wealth of information for us that will help us to a college of choice, if you will. That will lead us in the right direction very subtly, you know? And he's always been there, and has always been that subtle counselor. I've been watching him benefit; there's more than listening to him and watching what he does.
Grammy-nominated rapper, songwriter
I like The Blueprint. The direction of the album caught my attention. The samples of Bobby “Blue” Bland, David Ruffin, The Jackson 5 and Al Green were very soulful. It was great that he was able to use those soulful samples while still doing his Hov sh*t. I appreciated the different concepts and feeling it brought to the game.
My favorite album is The Black Album. He was ready to retire and when you retire, you want to retire on the biggest note. That album was pure, excellent and incredible. I was maybe 13 when that dropped and I must have played it 1,300 times. He had the best producers on it. My favorite songs were “Justify My Thug” and “Moment of Clarity.” “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” was an international record, but some of his best verses were on the deep cuts. The producers gave him not only their best work, but beats that fit his pocket almost perfectly. He had an incredible, cohesive album from top to bottom.
I have a few. 4:44 because it was the inspiration behind my record “Street.” I made that record the day 4:44 dropped. You have to be a Hov fan to appreciate when he talked about stabbing his mans or shooting at his brother. For him to be able to talk about his story, if you’re a real Hov fan, you know already. And the beats were what he wanted, too. When you’re a rapper, you’re often trying to fit into the beat. He might go with this flow and stop and pause for ten seconds and switch it up. I never heard anyone do that sh*t before, so I have to try that. He really took the beats and made them what he wanted it to be. Made the beat sound different, making it skip, just off the bars he said. I could hear it. But the top three are Reasonable Doubt, American Gangster and Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life. 4:44 is my favorite for now.
Julio Mejia: American Gangster. It has that Pharrell beat on there that I love (“I Know”).
Matthew Von Thoth: It’s The Blueprint for me. There’s just so many classics on there.
Grammy-nominated rapper, songwriter
Hov got a lot of albums that I love. One of my favorites has to be Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life. I just like the time. The game was very golden right there. Everyone would come into everyone’s studio sessions and there was a lot of love, a lot of money being moved around, and it was just a beautiful time. It was also easier to get in touch with him back then.
Grammy-winning rapper, businessman
My favorite album is American Gangster. [DJ] Toomp produced it so I could feel that. It was the first album where he got back in his bag, back on his sh*t, especially coming off Kingdom Come and all of these albums where he was able to experiment. But that’s when I knew he was back. Lenny S. was talking that sh*t to him, "You gotta go back in there and get 'em!"
"I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)." The opener is so good! [starts singing] "I’m a hustler, baby, I just want you to know" - It’s a favorite.
Grammy-winning rapper, songwriter
I came in a point in time where who we looked up to was JAY-Z, The Dynasty era. That was me. I was 13 years old...We were like, "Sh*t, you gotta rap to be a rapper." That’s how we thought. You can’t be out here bullsh*tin’ around with it, so I did like I said. I went back and I studied JAY. People actually connected to him, not just as a rapper, but as a person.
"It's the first time I knew I could be better and do something better than selling drugs my whole life."
Kareem "Biggs" Burke
Co-Founder of Roc-A-Fella Records
Reasonable Doubt. It was the genesis of it all. It was the platform we used to springboard into different businesses and was the proof of concept to show our spirit of independence. JAY lyrically was so ahead of what was out at that time. Sonically, the beats were so crazy. It was and is the Bible for every hustler. It was the project that we all gave equal input and trusted each other blindly on.
Grammy-nominated singer, songwriter
I wanna say my favorite project would be Watch The Throne. JAY and Kanye just floated easily across it, but it was like they were playfully battling through. "Take Off" with Beyonce is probably my favorite song on there.
Grammy-winning rapper, producer and 1/2 of Run The Jewels
I enjoy The Blueprint and Reasonable Doubt but I’m also a real fan of The Blueprint 2: The Gift and The Curse. I’m on Blueprint 2 (“Poppin Tags”), but that album dropped in the middle of the mixtape era, so the way it took samples and the flow of it had the spirit of a mixtape, but it wasn’t a mixtape. It was literally perfect with the exception of one record I didn’t like on there, but that didn’t have anything to with JAY. It was more of the production. But in all, it’s a perfect double album, much like Biggie’s double album (Life After Death). He doesn’t get credit for making one of the best double albums in hip-hop.
SVP of Roc Nation
I’m in a battle between Reasonable Doubt and The Blueprint. Reasonable Doubt was the first indication to the world of what was in store. I have other reasons from being a fan and working with him, but for the most part, I was already a super fan. When he went to St. Thomas ["In My Lifetime" video], rented out the speedboats and bought the entire island out of Cristal – to me that was an indication of who these guys were. Just as a lifestyle guide, as getting money guys, as hustlers making it happen.
He also gave the hustler another voice. The hustler was usually ignorant and getting money, talking sh*t, and being loud. JAY had an eloquent way of moving that was smoother than the average hustler’s way of doing. Most guys don’t get to that reflective state until they’re either in jail or broke. Where’s the person who's out there giving you game while he’s transitioning into who he’s meant to be?
And The Blueprint, it was Kanye, it was Just Blaze, it was just the most soulful tracks that you could get, that you weren’t hearing too often unless you were listening to Wu-Tang or whomever else. JAY was giving you these soulful, f*ckin' sexy tracks, with amazing mature lyrics that were still street, that were still informative, that were still the illest shit ever. That’s my battle between both projects and why they are both equally my favorite JAY-Z albums.
When you think about it, JAY is the blueprint. He’s a guy who never settles. That’s what Roc-A-Fella was built on – him, Dame, and Biggs. They were like, ‘Who says we can't use this club because they don’t book rappers? Their money is the same color as ours.’ It’s something small, but then there’s, ‘What do you mean we can’t have our own streaming service? What are you talking about?’ Everything about him is about finding a solution. I take that same approach to business.
JAY is also a friend who is honestly very compassionate, who cares about what’s going on with you and your family. Sometimes we tend to forget, because they have so much to deal with and we don’t want to bother them, that those things don’t matter when you’re brothers. But JAY is always like, ‘I want to know. I want to help. You want to talk about it?’ He’s really personal and really compassionate and a very, very, caring guy.
I liked the first jawn, Reasonable Doubt. It has a classic hip-hop sound, but I really liked The Blueprint. It was playful with tracks like “Girls, Girls, Girls,” but then he came back around with The Black Album. We had “99 Problems” and “Encore.” Those were moments that really stood out in hip-hop history. Bruh, he has a whole album with R. Kelly.
Grammy-winning artist, producer
Really? I have to choose? Ugh...my faves are between Reasonable Doubt or The Black Album.
Royce Da 5'9
Reasonable Doubt is my favorite JAY album. It showed me that you can be a highly proficient wordsmith and a fly n***a at the same time. He did it all on that album.
Grammy-nominated rapper, producer
One of the toughest songs ever made is “Come and Get Me.” To me, it’s one of the hardest songs he’s ever done. Real n***as know that one. If you ever see someone in a car riding around to that song, be very aware and careful of that person. Especially if she’s a chick. You got problems. When I put that song on, I feel like sh*t can go down at any second.
My favorite JAY-Z album might be American Gangster. It’s just everything I want in a hip-hop album. The beats, the soul samples, it was a conceptual album, which I’ve never heard him do. I feel like he stayed on topic, throughout the whole album, so it was like creating a whole story. He’s painting a picture. It just touched me and reminded me of the "Old JAY-Z," but it’s not comparable to anything else he’s done. You’ve got jewels you’ve never heard before. You also got that business side, too, so it was a mature JAY-Z before it was cool to be mature.
The most touching JAY song has to be “Regrets.” He painted a picture and put you in a position where you’re chasing the block and you see this dude trying to get his money and watching the block. Not only from the police, but the corner and fiends. It’s like, "I have all these evils behind me and I’m trying to survive."
Grammy-nominated DJ, producer
The Blueprint. You know, when you think about my favorite, the first thing that comes to mind is that cover and a line: “Allow me to reintroduce myself, my name is Hov.” It’s not necessarily my favorite lyric, but whenever I drop that one in the club, everyone sings along to it. It’s got that New York vibe. You feel like you’re in New York. You feel like that O.G. JAY-Z from back in the day.
My favorite album from JAY-Z is Reasonable Doubt because it was a testament to his life up until that point and also a testament to the career that he was about to have. It was the slow opening of being a mogul in rap and the slow closing of being a hustler in the streets. The album showed real duality in the hustler story in rap which, in my opinion, had never been done in a way that JAY-Z did. Just highly introspective, clear, reflective, and classic. For me, he is the epitome of what to strive for when you’re in this industry as an artist, as a rapper, as an emcee, and as somebody that’s also owning his/her business. I believe that he is a model of what one can attain and hope to be.
Grammy-nominated singer, songwriter
Reasonable Doubt. I love that album, it’s probably the best in the world. It was the first album I had of his when I was little. It was very thorough. I felt like I was in it, living in that world of luxury and hustle. I’m 11, thinking, "I’m living the life right now."
Rapper, producer, activist
My favorite JAY-Z album is JAY-Z’s favorite album: Reasonable Doubt. He has a lot of great albums. Some I like better than others. But Reasonable Doubt is the quintessential JAY-Z album. It’s where he created the person, the myth. Legend has it that it was supposed to be his only album. I think that he really recorded that album with that mindset and it felt like it. Nas is considered the top tier lyricist, so people compare him and JAY-Z. Nas is making business moves that are super impressive. When he first came out rapping, he was saying, "all I want is bi**hes with beepers, nickel bag, I’m just a kid from the project window telling these stories," but JAY-Z came out like, "I’m sipping Mai Tais. This is about money, I’m a capitalist." It’s very rare that you see someone put their all into music and business and get equal results. That’s what makes him so special and Reasonable Doubt special. Anyone who doubts his hip-hop credibility, that to me is the album. He had Ski-Beatz, Premier and Clark Kent on there. It made you think, "He really loves hip-hop." I could see why he fought for that album. That album is JAY-Z. I think every album after that is him trying to figure some things out like, "The fourth quarter is coming, Roc-A-Fella needs money so I should put out an album." That was an album that was supposed to be a statement to the world.
Grammy-winning rapper, songwriter, activist
That’s difficult. I love them all, but if I had to name one it would be In My Lifetime...Vol 1. That’s the one a lot of motherf**kers don’t like. I just feel like it was a transition. He stepped out of his comfort zone and went to do some sh*t that a lot of people said he shouldn’t have did. But he did it in such a way that it was dope. It still gave you those classic lines: “Cough up a lung where I’m from Marcy, son/ain't nothing nice.” That sh*t there is what I was going for when I made Trap Musik. I was trying to make an album for the hood that had sh*t that wasn’t supposed to be on there, but that’s why I can appreciate it.
The Blueprint. You have to go back to the original. He’s always been consistent after years and years and years which I think is so remarkable. So many people burn out and then they lose all their bars, but he’s always had bars! He has a lot of great songs, but one of his best is definitely “Lucifer.”
Tyran 'Ty Ty' Smith
Co-Founder of Roc Nation
American Gangster and [from that], “I Know.” It was one of the best ones to rock the entire album. I know it’s one of JAY’s best raps, to me, that he’s ever said. People think he’s talking about one thing, but he’s talking about a whole other thing. It went over their heads, because you don’t know what a lot of the stuff he’s talking about really means. He is heroin, he is the actual dope. You're addicted to heroin, you gotta have it. You know what I’m saying? I remember when he was talking about “9 & ½ weeks is better than 12 steps.” All of those are names of dopes that was selling in the street. All that sh*t is just the best, but what makes it good is that no one got it.
Host of The Van Jones Show
Outside of his art, the most important thing I’m excited about is his activism. For him to step out the way that he did for Meek Mill, a lot of folks wanna run the other way. Rather than running from the situation, JAY and Roc Nation ran to the situation. I’m represented by Roc Nation and it made me feel proud to be a part of their management team. It’s not about being right or wrong, but about what’s fair and the situation isn’t right. Nobody can be on probation for ten years, you or me. You show up to a job or you jaywalk and you're violated. He’s willing to see through any situation to talk about the bigger issue, the bigger problem, the bigger issue. I think most civil rights guys have a megaphone, but no one has a bigger megaphone than JAY-Z. Civil rights people like myself have a certain amount of credibility or standing in the world, but no one has a platform like JAY-Z. It’s the most unique on the planet. In the grace of God that could’ve been JAY, his genius stolen and hidden from the public. I think he needs a whole lot of credit for what he’s doing.
Longtime JAY-Z Engineer, Producer, Jamla Records Executive
The Blueprint. It was a needed change for the sound of hip-hop.