When I first read Decoded, I was beyond thrilled. One, Jay-Z had written a book. It wasn’t that long after The Black Book that was supposed to follow The Black Album was canceled but he still wrote a book. Two, we got the backstories of so many vital songs to his catalog. As much as Jay was known for his high production from 1996 to 2003, he tried to be as guarded as possible. Seeing him be vulnerable in the form of Decoded was a breath of fresh air. Third, Jay was explaining his bars in his own words before Genius was around. I think Genius wasn’t around yet. But that alone was an amazing thing to take in with every page.
Fast forward to today, five days after DJ Khaled’s God Did album went live along with Jay’s stellar 4 minute blackout on the title track. Khaled, Young Guru, and Lenny S started hyping the verse as of August 3rd, claiming it to be one of the best of Jay’s career and that Hov was the greatest rapper alive, with this verse being all the proof someone would need. On August 26, I dropped my daughter off at school, hopped back in the car, and pressed play.
Listen 1: Floored. The slick talk was back. This wasn’t billionaire Jay that shows up a few times a year. He was talking priors; he was talking dope. This wasn’t light talking Jay, this was all bass in his voice. The cockiness that he didn’t have to display was there. The personal references. The bible metaphors. The wordplay and the punchlines hit hard.
And then it continued on. This wasn’t just a verse, this was bars on bars. The energy was high and stayed high. Jay was on a mission. I don’t know what was on his mind when he stepped in that booth but I had teared up by the time his lyrical assault had ended.
Listen 2: Awe. This time I was listening closer. Trying to catch the entendres, the meanings that only people who had spent their entire lives pouring over his bars like me would know. Listening to the delivery and the cadences he was reciting with little to no effort. It made me want to listen to Jay spit the verse without the distraction of the instrumental and I’ve never had that thought before. I had tears in my eyes again as the verse came to a close. Tears of joy. To hear the person I’ve heralded as my favorite rapper spit at such a high, intense level in his 50s? It was something to behold.
Listen 3: Triumph. The tears swelled again. I started attempting to rap along but I’ve never been the quickest to pick up lyrics. The windows were down, it was Friday, I had this incredible Jay-Z verse. There was nothing wrong with the world at that moment. I decided I wanted to play the verse for Angel. I last played her Kendrick’s “Auntie Diaries” after how taken aback I was with the honesty and vulnerability he displayed in that song.
Listen 4: Nervousness. I’m only nervous when I play my music for someone. I’ve played music I liked for other people and if they didn’t like it, they didn’t like it. But something told me this might not go the way I hoped with Angel as impressed as I was. I turned the song on YouTube and had her start paying attention when Jay-Z’s verse started.
I enjoyed it but I wasn’t hearing it the same. The swagger that I loved before seemed arrogant. The drug talk seemed out of place? The references that I thought were so incredible now seemed to go over even my head. The bars about helping Meek almost seemed like he was holding it over his head that he aided him in regaining his freedom. It just felt different.
And Angel wasn’t impressed.
She’s never up for any kind of blasphemous talk so she wasn’t hearing any of the biblical punchlines (she’s never been a fan of the Hov nickname either). But even more importantly, she felt like all of his braggadocio was empty. That he was thanking his years dealing drugs for where he’s at now. The statute of limitations may have expired and sound fly to me but she didn’t hear anything inspiring. She didn’t see how it pushed the culture forward. She didn’t see how this would help black people escape the stereotypes of being drug dealers and criminals that they’re labeled as. She could tell I had been excited but she wasn’t sorry for telling me the truth about how the verse made her feel. To her, Hov did a lot of nothing.
A part of me wanted to tell her she was wrong. But there wasn’t any fighting her response. As amazing as Jay’s verse was, as much as I loved the train of thought bars that made it seem like he had spent hours crafting his lyrics, there wasn’t a lot to it at the end of the day.
Do not mistake me. Only Jay-Z could have produced this verse and it gets the acclaim and the recognition that it’s gotten. And Jay’s never pretended to be a conscious rapper. The knowledge you gain from his music is normally on a street level only. He might pop up with some real gems like he sprinkled throughout 4:44 but Jay is what he is. “The soul of a hustler, I really ran the street.”
He doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel with every verse. He doesn’t even have to rap. He doesn’t have to give us a diagram of how he went from the corner to the corner office. And with all the charity and philanthropy and good deeds that we know he’s used his money for, he doesn’t have to uplift his people when he decides to rap for 4 minutes.
But just as he has done his entire career, his work is subject to the court of popular opinion. It’s an incredible verse and its legend will only grow with each passing day. But it does contain a lot of negative connotations that we as black people are constantly struggling against in everyday life.
Shawn Carter has helped his people every time his fame grew, to a level where there are things that we’ll never know he did to help those less fortunate. But Jay-Z, to a casual listener, might sound full of himself. And that’s something he has to live with too.
My conversation with Angel weighed on my mind so much that it ended up in my latest verse:
Listen 5: Agreement. I played the verse again on my way to work Monday. It felt like when you blow a ton of money on sushi and you’re full but then you’re hungry again two hours later. Everything that moved me the first three listens was there but it wasn’t connecting. I was disenchanted. All I could think about was what Hov hadn’t done.
I even briefly convinced myself that Eminem’s verse from “Use This Gospel” was better than what Jay had done.
Listen 6: After I finished off Wiz’s last album Multiverse, I decided to look through God Did for something besides the title track. I played the intro thinking it was something with substance and immediately ended back up on “God Did”. And this time, I just found enjoyment.
Jay’s not going to win everyone over with every verse. He knows that. Part of the reason he’s been so successful is due his ability to not worry about what others think. He’s always done what works best for him. When he walked into the booth to lay this verse, he wasn’t trying to save the world or his people. He was just saying the words as they came. It just so happened that Guru and Lenny were in awe of something that they’ve heard him do a million times which started the hype train.
Would my opinion on the song have dipped without Angel’s feedback? Probably not. But without her point of view, I wouldn’t have let myself see the flaws that can be found.
I’m going to choose to overlook the issues when I listen to the song from now on. While on some levels that could be seen as ignorant, I’m always willing to discuss the good and the bad of his verse. But for me, it’s a pretty incredible Jay-Z verse that he turned in 4 months away from turning 53. Name a 53 year old rapper who could come close to this verse, flaws and all. And you need to provide proof. No hypotheticals.
I’ll never drop 80 bars that keeps everyone’s attention for 4 minutes, good or bad. I’ll never know everything that Hov was saying in this verse, negative or positive. I’ll never know if this song could influence someone down the wrong or right path.
I will remember this moment and the time that Jay-Z showed once again why he’s unequivocally my greatest rapper of all-time.
Never stop being you Hov. You don’t need me to say that though.