What I marvel at most when I listen to Jay-Z’s newest album Magna Carta… Holy Grail is his evolution; his ability to simultaneously reference his past and celebrate his present. His poetic lyrics are so thick with meaning, so full of clever word play that listening to him challenges me to spot the reference, catch the way he took a line, wrapped it around his head, curled it around his tongue, and rapid-fire presented it to the world. I’m proud when I catch his turn-of-phrase, and also proud to be the age I am, to remember what he remembers, because Jay-Z has managed to remain relevant while also keeping the past alive. The older I get, the more that becomes a goal of mine: recall the past, live in the present.
One of my favourite movies is White Christmas. It stars Bing Crosby, who was famous for turning a phrase and making the way he spoke into his own musical language. Many of his phrases made it into White Christmas, my favourite being that his eye sight was starting to fade and he sometimes had to “play trombone” when he read something. I also love, at the end of his duet with David Bowie on Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth when Bing wistfully states, “pretty little thing.” Jay is the only artist who has delighted me as much as Bing with his ability to turn a phrase.
The ability to take a group of words and twist them into your own unique language is a sure sign of talent, and Jay-Z is undoubtedly a talented writer. It’s not simply his ability to beautifully explain his emotions, congratulate his success, or display his doubts as a son, husband, and father, but his impeccable ability to grab a line from pop culture and work it into his poetry. In MCHG he references gorgeous iconic lines from REM’s “Losing My Religion” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, but also pokes a little fun at Ma$e and Miley Cyrus. He samples Biggie (whose memory Jay has kept alive better than Puff ever did) and Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. In the same song! Jay-Z is fun. He chuckles while he rhymes, he’s tickled by his clever playful jabs, and, when performing live, he reveals pure joy while he strings words together into a perfectly rhythmic piece of music. Every single time he performs with Beyoncé he grins around his mic like it’s the first time he’s strutted up to his stunning wife and surrounded her with words of reverence and pride.
Jay-Z’s ability to recall the past and celebrate the present is why his career has survived. He works with young talented artists and remains loyal to people he has collaborated with for years. He trusts his audience and reveals his flaws and doubts while truly enjoying the success he has earned. His intelligence, his struggle, and that slight disconnect he has to his fame, makes him riveting. He’s one of those artists that I want to not just know what he’s thinking, but also how he feels. How does he process what happened to him: good and bad? What haunts him? How has he processed his wealth and fame? He’s going to tell us, and he’s going to tell us beautifully. Jay is going to school us on art, film, music, pop culture and fashion while also telling us his story. I want to know his story. It’s outstanding.