Hip Hop circles have long debated the greatest rapper of all-time. The question has likely been the source of thousands of arguments in barbershops, hair salons, and around office water coolers. It’s a point of contention because answering the question, in any definitive way, proves difficult. Ask ten people and you’ll probably come away with ten different answers.
Over the past decade, Jay-Z’s name has constantly been in circulation in such debates. Through the course of his 17-year career, he’s attained an unprecedented level of visibility and commercial success. He’s one of a small group of Rap acts to have transcended the genre. Jay’s career accomplishments are widely known, but does he warrant real consideration as the highest watermark in the annals of Hip Hop history?
As a longtime fan of Rap and self-admitted Jay-Z Stan, I’ve often made the claim that he’s the Muhammad Ali of the artform. Ten years ago, the responses to that claim were impassioned and sometimes even vitriolic. Patent denials about the substantive reality of this claim were the rule. Very few exceptions were made back then and the opposition always required elaborate presentations to demonstrate his worthiness for such a distinction.
In 2003, you had to argue the affirmative position. These days, the loudest appeals are coming from detractors on the other side of the debate. I’m the nostalgic type so today I’d like to re-issue a rejoinder to settle the argument once and for all. Don’t judge me, Hip Hop and hubris are familiar bedfellows.
Without further ado, here’s my case:
1. 30 million+ albums sold (domestically).
Commercial sales are always the first casualty in the supremacy wars that dominate the general discourse in Hip Hop. Sales alone can never be a full measure of artistic merit. Vanilla Ice once sold 15,000,000 copies of his debut album To the Extreme. That album, to this day, is still one of the best-selling albums in the history of the genre, but in the pantheon of Rap respectability, Robert Van Winkle is little more than a footnote. Outside of the global Hip Hop community that commonly disfavors the uber-successful artists of Jay’s ilk, album sales are always included in the criteria that establish the greats. Think about it: Have you ever heard anyone gloss over record sales in a conversation about the Beatles?
Jay-Z trails only Eminem and Tupac on the list of the top-selling Rap artists of all-time. According to the RIAA, his discography accounts for more than 33 million albums sold in the US (50 million worldwide). To put that number into perspective, he’s outsold the following non-Rap acts: Barry Manilow, Frank Sinatra, ZZ Top, Brooks & Dunn, Janet Jackson, Motley Crue, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Police, and the Bee Gees. Jay-Z is in elite company irrespective of genre. His total sales number becomes even more impressive when you consider the fact that his biggest-selling album, Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life, sold 5 million copies more than 15 years ago.
2. Real-time influence.
Imitation has always been the highest form of flattery in the Rap genre. It’s not uncommon for younger artists to mine the flows, personas, and mannerisms of the predecessors who influenced them. We typically see pioneering emcees emulated in the aftermath of their careers though. In the Jay-Z case, he’s one of the most copied acts in the Rap world while he’s still a competitive force in the marketplace. The influence over his subordinates is clear. Traces of Jay can be heard in the likes of Kanye West, Lil’ Wayne, Young Jeezy, Drake, Rick Ross, Lupe Fiasco, Pusha T, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, and a host of other artists. Despite often having been maligned by his contemporaries, he remains one of the most admired rappers in the music business.
3. Far-reaching impact.
In 2003, Jay-Z announced what would eventually become a short-lived retirement. He accompanied the announcement with his seminal project The Black Album. If that weren’t parting gift enough, he made the a cappella version of the album available to consumers (for remixes and mashups). What would follow is the one of the most interactive movements the genre’s ever witnessed. The vocals-only album spawned over 150 Black Album remix projects. The most notable remixes were done by: 9th Wonder, Illmind, Kev Brown, Kno, and DJ Danger Mouse, but it became a trend that spanned both the commercial and underground realms of Hip Hop. Only the ‘Roxanne Wars’ (of the mid-80′s) and the Kendrick Lamar “Control” responses were comparable in terms of sheer scale.
Jay-Z’s now-infamous feud with Nas is another testament to how impactful he’s been over the music business. In a number of Hip Hop circles, fans credit their wax war of words for the resurrection of Nas’ career. Nas’ venemous “Ether” was featured on his 2001 release Stillmatic. Unsurprisingly, the album was highly successful, selling more than two million copies. It was the biggest-selling album he’d had since the late-90′s. He hasn’t sold as many records on a single project since.
4. A long tenure.
Jay-Z’s marriage to the music industry is nearing its China anniversary. It’s been 17 years since his debut album Reasonable Doubt (1996). Few in the Rap game have hung around as long. Even fewer have coupled this kind of longevity with lasting relevance and commercial viability. At 43, Jay-Z’s still at the top of his form. His partnership with Samsung to digitally distribute Magna Carta… Holy Grail resulted in a Platinum-certified album. MCHG went on to sell another 528,000 copies the following week. There are a half-dozen artists with fifteen year careers, but maybe only three, not named Jay-Z, who can still boast an elite-level contribution to today’s recording industry (Eminem, Lil’ Wayne, and Kanye West).
5. Numbers on the boards.
Jay-Z’s amassed an astonishing set of musical accomplishments.
Consider the following:
- Record: Most No. 1 albums for a solo artist in music history (13)
- Record: Most Top 10s on the Billboard Hot 100 among rappers (20)
- Career Awards: Grammy Awards (17), Billboard Music Awards (2), American Music Awards (3), MTV Video Music Awards (6), BET Awards (6)
- 5th on the all-time list of most appearances on the Billboard Hot 100 (79)
- 3rd on the all-time list of top-selling Rap artists (33 million+)
- 1 of only 6 artists ever to have 7 singles simultaneously debut on the Billboard Hot 100
- Record (U.S.): Most Spotify album streams ever (14 million)
- The Source 5-mic rated albums (2)
- Albums ranked in Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 greatest albums of all-time (2)
6. Three classic albums.
Despite having been the first album in Jay’s discography, RD remains the standard-bearing centerpiece of a brilliant career. His subsequent efforts have mostly lived in the shadows of this iconic piece of work. At first glance, Doubt‘s track list looks like a compilation album of timeless Jay-Z records. It’s easily one of the finest debut albums in the history of the genre. Jay-Z’s first full-length project is a voyeuristic view into the tragedy and triumph of an eloquent street tale.
This album is arguably the next-most widely accepted classic in Jay-Z’s catalog. The musical layout of this project briefly redefined the sound of Rap music. Producers Kanye West and Just Blaze took responsibility for more than half of the album’s 13 tracks and in turn wove a magnificent audio tapestry. Jay responded in kind by returning some of the most superb songs of his musical life in “U Don’t Know”, “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)”, “Never Change”, and “Song Cry.”
The Black Album,
Jay-Z’s eighth studio album was originally slated to be the swan song for a remarkable seven-year run. At the time, TBA was the most highly-anticipated album of his career. In an effort to construct the quintessential send-off, he enlisted the help of familiar faces Rick Rubin, Timbaland, Kanye West, Just Blaze, and The Neptunes. The decorated production team composed a sterling soundtrack as the backdrop to a poignant narrative about the trajectory of Jay’s personal and artistic lives. “December 4th”, “What More Can I Say”, “Moment of Clarity”, “Encore”, and “Allure” are among the album’s stellar moments. The Black Album‘s sharp and introspective writing made it one of the decade’s best Rap releases.
7. Six tools (Lyricism/Storytelling/Charisma/Flow/Versatility/Originality).
Jay-Z has been heralded for wordsmithing throughout his career. Eminem and Nas are typically mentioned ahead of him in discussions about the genre’s greatest lyricists, but he’s always been part of the conversation. The Source ranked him 4th on their list of the Top 50 Lyricists of All-Time.
Jay’s also particularly adept in the art of storytelling. His ability to craft picturesque narratives is another career calling card. Songs like “Meet the Parents”, “Friend or Foe”, and “You Must Love Me” are among the most critically lauded in the Shawn Carter collection.
Staying power in today’s rap milieu requires likability. Only an uber-charismatic figure could’ve taken the industry-wide Auto-Tune trend to task and walked away from it virtually unscathed. “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)” worked because Jay-Z’s presence is still welcomed and appreciated in the genre.
It’s been nearly a quarter-century since Jay-Z and Jaz O traded rapid-fire verses on “The Originators” (1990). Six years later, when RD was released, Jay had settled into a more conversational flow in the mold of Big Daddy Kane. On “Lost One” he opts to swing his verses with lilting rhythms. “Dead Presidents”, “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)”, and “Feelin’ It” are all phrased in a precise, polysyllabic way. In short, Jay-Z’s a chameleon who can adapt his cadence to practically any beat.
Precious few emcees, in Hip Hop’s storied history, have been as even-handed as Jay-Z. The contrast between owning the record for the most Top 10s among rappers and having three classic albums is stark. It also points squarely to a continuum of artistry and commercial viability that only a smattering of his peers (or predecessors for that matter) have been able to create.
Taken together, I believe these seven criteria form the most comprehensive and compelling “greatest rapper of all-time” argument available. There simply has never been a parallel for Jay-Z in the Rap genre. For the foreseeable future, I’m not sure anyone’s threatening to approach, let alone surpass his career legacy. Despite all of my stubborn effort, I still don’t expect you to take my word for it. Take it from the Jiggaman himself:
I’m supposed to be #1 on everybody list…we’ll see what happens when I no longer exist. — “What More Can I Say”
Until next time, K.I.M. (keep it moving)!