Last week Friday, much to everyone’s surprise, Jay-Z released his 13th solo album, 4:44. The semi-retired rapper brought a more mature sound to his vast discography, providing listeners with life lessons on ownership, marriage, children, the black experience and wealth. But while there’s no denying that Jay-Z is still cut above the rest and can still deliver stellar albums at 47-years-old. We must ask, how can a rapper who is turning 50 in a couple of years still be relevant in an artform that prides itself in being youthful?
— RIAA (@RIAA) July 5, 2017
Jay-Z’s debut album was released in 1996 which around that time 2pac, Biggie, Fugees, Nas, 2 Short etc were dominating the rap game compared to now with 4:44 being released around the same time as 2 Chainz, Young Thug and DJ Khaled’s album releases. The dichotomy of styles of rap and eras is crazy and yet the one consistent thing in both is Jay-Z, in 20 plus years, he’s been able to still sound and be as relevant as he did when he was 26 as he does now at 47. To put things in perspective Jay-Z is older than Snoop Dogg, Nas, Biggie/2pac (if they were still alive), Method Man, Raekwon etc and just a year younger than Rakim for example. And yet despite his age, he’s still able to release albums after album that still cause hysteria whenever they drop when in comparison to those who were rapping with him back in 1996 now have little to no relevance commercially bar Nas and arguably Snoop Dogg.
The most obvious factor is Jay-Z’s ability to jump on the trend of the day whether it be double-time rap that we saw at the beginning of his career for example (see video above). But more specifically aligning himself with the biggest cults and best producers of the day and using their popular sound to benefit his own. Like he did with Ruff Ryders and Swizz Beats in ’98 or Timbaland in ’99-2000, Pharrell and The Neptunes in the early ’00s before cultivating his own team of producers who pioneered popular sound throughout the 2000s. That being, of course, Just Blaze and Kanye West, the latter particularly had a major part in keeping Jay-Z relevant to a new audience and expanding his sound further to accommodate new fans and new hip hop – particularly in the latter part of his career circa The Blueprint 3 onwards.
The fact he started his career late (for a rapper) with his first album Reasonable Doubt (released when he was 26), allowed for Jay-Z to examine the game extensively, see what his peers did well and similarly what they didn’t do so well, so by the time Reasonable Doubt was out Jay Z had the blueprint (no pun intended) for success. Which is why there’s no surprise he released an album every year from 1996-2003 with each album featuring a new sound by the then hottest artists and producers and in turn allowed Jay-Z to extend his popularity with every release. Making bold moves like working with southern rappers like UGK on “Big Pimpin'” which now may seem so casual but back then rappers mainly collaborated with rappers from their cities/coasts or who rapped in their style, it was rare for two opposing sounds like East Coast rap and Southern rap to meet. But Jay-Z being the business savvy man that he is, he was aware that extending his network would allow for further growth and ultimately to remain relevant for varying audiences. This is the same reason why he has done a fair share of collaborative albums like Best of Both Worlds with R. Kelly as at the time he was the biggest R&B artist or Linkin Park on Collision Course who were a huge pop act or Kanye West who at 2010/11 was at his peak and Jay-Z knew touring with Yeezy with Watch The Throne would incur crazy profit but provide a lasting legacy that many other rappers will never experience.
Hence why by the time The Blueprint had dropped in 2001, he was immortal and even huge atrocities like 911 (his album was released the same day as 911) didn’t affect his sales – he sold a whopping 420k copies in his first week! But what is his smartest move is using his popularity and turning this into ownership in a way no other rapper has done so before. From having his own label, his own clothing line with Rocawear, owning his own masters all the way through to having his own streaming service. Not to forget, performing at concerts and festivals as the headline act that were not used to rappers doing so like Glastonbury or buying a basketball team! The guy is a pioneer in both music and in business and being a leader in both has helped to keep his name on everyone’s lips for decades.
One thing that can’t be discouraged is his relationship and now marriage to Beyonce. The early days of their relationship coincided with Beyonce breaking out of Destiny Child and embarking on a solo career which with her own trajectory helped Jay Z’s own name, brand, and music to rise to a new level. Even to this day with 4:44 which for the first time Jay-Z delves deep into his and Beyonce’s relationship and the alleged infidelity that clouds it, adds more fuel to the Jay-Z relevancy fire, as did Beyonce’s Lemonade it finally unravels their previously private relationship and creates more attention to either partner and ultimately their career.
All in all, Jay-Z’s ability to spot and start trends, collaborate with the hottest artists and producers of the day as well as be a pioneer in both music and business has led to a 47-year-old rapper being as relevant if not more relevant than those who are 20 years his junior. But while he’s created means to stay relevant what’s most remained and most prevalent on 4:44 is his endless ability to rap. If there’s one word that can be used to describe Jay-Z , it’s consistency – he’s been the most consistent artist of all time.