Imagine being Jay Z right now. Imagine having an iconic 20-year musical legacy but watching celebrity-impressionist comedians reducing your entire history to a mirthless chuckle, your ad-libs defining you the same way Michael Jackson’s hee-hee used to define him. Imagine investing a fortune into a new business and watching that business turn into a clusterfuck-album-release punchline. Imagine your wife making an entire album about how you’re a cheating asshole and you’re lucky that she’s still with you, and then imagine that album being the main thing keeping your business afloat. Imagine being a universally beloved and respected artist who hasn’t made any good music in years. And then imagine being more conscious of that than anyone else. Jay knows it’s been a long, long time since he’s done anything musically worth a shit. And on a couple of recent songs, he’s trying hard to change that.
I love the idea of the “All The Way Up” remix. I love the idea that Jay could hear “All The Way Up,” a song from an old rival (he doesn’t want to speak about the Rucker), realizing that it’s the best throwbacky New York rap hit in ages, realizing that a track like that could be a perfect vehicle for a comeback verse. “All The Way Up” might be my favorite song of 2016 thus far, and I love it for the same reasons, presumably, that Jay does. That snaky horn riff and that hooted hook and that slash-your-face Remy Ma verse — this is New York rap from the era when New York could still, sometimes, be dangerous. “All The Way Up” is a Tunnel banger that’s only coming out 15 years after the Tunnel, the legendary New York nightclub, was shut down. It’s a song that deserved a vintage Jay verse. So yes: Jay on this song is a great idea. It’s just a shame about the execution.
The problem, I think, is that Jay has to address Lemonade. He can’t not. I already wrote this when I reviewed the album, but Lemonade is Jay’s own wife ethering him much more effectively than the actual song “Ether” ever did. The late-in-the-album point where Beyoncé decides to stay in the marriage always feels abrupt and unearned and not-entirely-convincing. Listening to the album, I can’t help but imagine how Jay’s face must’ve looked the first time he heard it. And even if the whole Lemonade story is fiction, it’s fiction that preys on Jay and Bey’s public profile. If Jay sacrificed that image so that he could make sure Tidal had a hit exclusive album, that’s not necessarily less humiliating than it would be if every word Beyoncé sang was true. It’s hard to look at Lemonade as anything other than a massive, historic L for Jay.
And so here’s how he addresses it: “You know you made it when the fact your marriage made it is worth millions / Lemonade is a popular drink, and it still is.” The second part of that line is a paraphrase of a famously goofy Guru line from Gang Starr’s “DWYCK,” and it’s fine. Every old rap dork, myself included, used that line to make a Lemonade joke this past spring. Jay does it sort of awkwardly (is and it still is?), but it’s oddly comforting to realize that he remembers who DJ Premier is. But that opening bit is total death, Jay rushing to cram in all those syntactically tortured syllables while redirecting your attention to all the money that he’s supposedly making from this album. It’s all a complete distraction. Jay has to address Lemonade, and the way he does it is by effectively saying, “Hey, I’m rich! Also, rap!” It’s not enough. The rest of Jay’s verse is bland CEO talk, the type of thing he’s been doing for altogether too long now. Also, Fat Joe says, “Get so much brain, now I’m a Don Carta-genius.” That’s not great either.
Unless we’re counting the two bars he rapped on the original version of Drake’s “Pop Style” — and we’re not — the “All The Way Up” remix was the first song with a Jay Z verse in about two years. He followed it up quickly, and I’m glad he did. Jay’s verse on Pusha T’s “Drug Dealers Anonymous” is Jay in his happy place, rapping over a forbidding low-key instrumental about all the years he sold crack. Jay had never made a song with Pusha before, and it’s a great match. Ever since his fake and short-lived mid-’00s retirement, Jay has only sounded completely alive when he’s rapping about his drug-dealing past. His best post-Black Album album, American Gangster, is devoted to that and nothing else. And that’s what Pusha does. It’s practically all he does. Someone on Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald’s The Watch podcast made the point this week: Pusha is rap’s leading crime writer. He’s not a star. He’s not really part of the zeitgeist. He’s just sitting back and writing these sharp, dense, beautifully worded ruminations on his own past. It’s been enough to support a great career, and it’s easy to hear why Jay would want in on that.
On paper, Jay’s “Drug Dealers Anonymous” verse is at least a little corny. He mentions Google twice like it’s a new thing. He namechecks Fellini for some reason. He says, “Y’all think Uber’s the future, our cars been autonomous,” as if he thinks that Uber actually has autonomous cars. He makes a “damn, Daniel” reference a couple of months too late. But it all sounds great. The “damn, Daniel” line in particular, I mean, he follows it up with this: “FBI keep bringing them all-white vans through.” That is great wordplay and great observation! What else do you want? Jay’s fully in the pocket here, his voice taking on a tinge of its old viciousness. He’s still talking about his money, but he’s also making it very plain that he rose up out of nothing — first because of what he was doing in the streets, then on the strength of his rapping, and finally on his otherworldly business sense. A sampled Fox News pundit uses Jay’s drug-dealing history to lament Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance, and then Jay comes through like damn right. And so many of his lines here are beautiful little composed things: “Life made me ambidextrous / Counting with my right, whipping white with my left wrist.” It sounds like Jay rediscovering his voice in front of us.
But it’s going to take a whole lot of songs like “Drug Dealers Anonymous” before Jay really recaptures what was once special about him. I have vivid memories of walking through Brooklyn in the summer of 2000 with Vol. 3 on my Walkman, learning things about rap music that I just hadn’t figured out before — the idea that if you said you were the best, and you believed it with every iota of your soul, then it was probably true. The otherworldly confidence that drove Jay to make “Who You Wit” and “Money, Cash, Hoes” and “So Ghetto” is gone. It’s not coming back. Still, it’s nice to hear some echo of it. And if Jay needs to ignore Lemonade completely and disappear into his old street-life memories to recapture some tiny piece of that, fair enough. You can’t be young, black, and holding your nuts like chea forever.
1. DJ Khaled – “For Free” (Feat. Drake)
Further evidence in support of my hypothesis that the version of Drake who raps breezy, effortless shit-talk over Bay Area beats is the best version of Drake. It’s a whole hell of a lot better than the Views version, anyway.
2. YG – “Still Brazy”
YG can rap about being trapped in a web of paranoia, and it still sounds like a party. That’s a very peculiar kind of gift.
3. DMX – “Still Scratching” (Feat. Styles P)
We, as a society, deserve a resurgent DMX. Styles P says, “Wifebeater and your white T turn all red when you split to the white meat,” and it’s the softest, tenderest moment of the song.
4. Curren$y – “I Can’t Go Back” (Feat. Juvenile)
I wonder if there’s a secret society of laid-back, melodious New Orleans rappers. I hope there is. I hope they just hang out at each other’s houses, drinking mimosas in each other’s backyards and playing with each other’s kids and pets, and that’s how songs like this come to be.
5. Lil Bibby – “You Ain’t Gang”
Lil Bibby is 21 years old. He sounds like he stepped out of a pool of lava the day the last dinosaur gave its death rattle. This will never not impress me.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
"I freestyle all the time" *freestyles for the first time ever* pic.twitter.com/lMerlMx76l
— Al Shipley (@alshipley) June 6, 2016