by Adam Kaplan –
Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt recently turned twenty years old. It’s pretty crazy to think about, but it should be no surprise considering how prolific the rapper is and how prevalent he’s been within the zeitgeist. Outside of some of the founding members of N.W.A., Jay-Z is arguably hip hop’s most senior and tenured member.
While Jay-Z was never the most talented rapper, he’s arguably on the genre’s Mount Rushmore thanks to his ear, storytelling, and ability to produce hit after hit. After his friend and mentor, The Notorious B.I.G passed, Jay-Z was handed the rap mantle and I believe, ended up becoming a lot like him. Like Jay-Z, Biggie was never the most talented lyricists-in that respect he was lightyears behind his contemporary, Tupac Shakur-but his songs were catchier and (seemingly) more relatable. Jay-Z has been the same way. Songs from the earlier part of his career like “Hard Knock Life” and “Big Pimpin’” still resonate and pop today.
Jay-Z really hit his stride with The Blueprint. Despite being unfortunately released on September 11, 2001, the album went double platinum and received deservingly rave reviews. It’s no coincidence that The Blueprint is where Kanye West, Jay-Z’s protégé, received his big break. West added his signature style of sampling and modernizing old school R&B and soul to the record. For example, “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love),” featuring a sample from the Bobby Blue Band, and the album’s signature song, “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” sampling The Jackson 5, helped propel Jay-Z into another level among the rap’s elites, thanks to West.
A few years later, Jay-Z released The Black Album, and for my money, it’s not only his best album, but one of the best rap albums of all time. Featuring what could be considered THE greatest rap song, “99 Problems,” Jay-Z proved, once again, how much he could reinvent himself to appeal to the modern pop world. Thanks to help from producers like Rick Rubin and The Neptunes, The Black Album made Jay-Z The King – and he knows it, rapping on the end of “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” that we are now tuned in to “the motherfucking greatest” because he’s “the best rapper alive.”
After almost a decade in the game and eight albums under his belt, you could have made a great argument that Jay-Z really was the best rapper alive, unfortunately, Jay-Z had competition for that title. While we didn’t know it yet, West was lurking in the shadows, ready to take the title. A few months after The Black Album dropped, West released his own debut album The College Dropout, featuring classic tracks like “Through the Wire,” “All Falls Down,” and “Jesus Walks”. Whereas Jay-Z was rapping about being a player and dealing drugs, Kanye West was rapping about more meaningful and relatable topics, such as faith and the insecurities of “Keeping Up With The Joneses”. No mainstream rapper would have dared to touch topics like that, but Kanye West did with resounding success. Over the years, we’ve seen this insistence to go off of the beaten path help propel him to the top of the rap game. Years later, when Jay-Z was using the traditional best producers in the game like Pharrell Williams, Timbaland, and Swizz Beatz for 2013’s Magna Carta… Holy Grail, West was using Daft Punk and other various up and coming Electronic producers to make 2013’s genius Yeezus. Jay-Z was always able to gear his work towards where rap was already going, while Kanye West sets the trends.
If you need any more proof of Kanye’s dominance over Jay-Z, just listen to 2011’s Watch The Thrones, the album Jay-Z and Kanye West recorded together. Jay does the brunt of the work and heavy lifting, but doesn’t really say a whole lot. The rapping is good, but not outstanding, but then Kanye comes in and blows the roof off of the building – just listen to a track like “N***** in Paris”. Jay-Z has some good lines like, “I’m liable to go Michael, take your pick / Jackson, Tyson, Jordan- Game 6” but he still raps about sports and money, then Kanye comes in talking about hooking up with a girl at the mall. It’s insane, irreverent, and just amazing. Nobody raps and innovates like Kanye does, and that’s what makes him the best.
So, while Jay-Z can rap about being the best rapper alive, and I love the guy, for my money, I’ll take Kanye West.