Friday 23 February 2018

Jay-Z: Rap up the rulebook

Eamon Sweeney

Eamon Sweeney

'I'm sorry, but Jay-Z? No chance. Glastonbury has a tradition of guitar music and even when they throw the odd curve ball in on a Sunday night, you go: 'Kylie Minogue?' I don't know about it, but I'm not having hip-hop at Glastonbury. It's wrong." Thus spoke Noel Gallagher, formerly of Oasis and spokesman for a dad-rock generation, who measure out their lives in Paul Weller albums.

He of the massive eyebrows seemingly took offence at the booking of Jay-Z to headline the world famous Pyramid Stage at the iconic festival in 2008, as if white guitar-bands had a God-given right to exclusively peddle their whiney derivative muzak on an annual basis.

Jay-Z's riposte was pure genius. It's still a classic YouTube moment two years to the day this very weekend as the world goes gaga for Glasto hitting the big four O -- a milestone the man known to his homies as Jigga reached in December.

He took to the stage with looped news footage of Gallagher's remarks spliced with sound bites from Ian Paisley, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Vladimir Putin, the Queen and various others all talking as if they were commenting about the controversial headline slot.

Cue the man of the moment arriving onstage with a guitar to the strains of Wonderwall and playfully singing over the intro. He puts down the guitar, as if to signal the generic changing of the guard of Glastonbury headliners.

"I've only one thing to say," he announced to a thronged hill, before rapping: "If you're having girl problems, I feel bad for you son. I've got 99 problems, but a bitch ain't one." In this instance of his single 99 Problems, it could perhaps be construed that the 'bitch' in question was Gallagher. The song also contains the lines: "I'm like, fuck critics. You can kiss my whole asshole. If you don't like my lyrics, you can press fast forward."

Conquering Worthy Farm in front of a global television audience of millions was just another day at the office for Shawn Corey Carter, aka Jay-Z. He has sold more than 40 million albums -- setting a US record that surpasses even the King himself, Elvis Presley -- has a mantelpiece crammed with 10 Grammy Awards, ownership of a nightclub, a record company, a clothing brand and a basketball team, plus an estimated fortune of $150m (€122m).

To use hip-hop parlance, Jay-Z completely flips the script about what being a rapper, artist, businessman and entrepreneur is all about. Lest we forget, his stunning girlfriend is the official Princess of Pop Beyoncé Knowles. They're unquestionably the hottest power couple in the world of entertainment. I consider their 2003 duet Crazy in Love to be the best single of the last decade hands down.

Put it this way, Jay-Z is probably the coolest man on the planet. Even the likes of President Barack Obama, Kofi Annan and Bono look up to him. "Barack loves hip-hop," Jay-Z revealed to Jonathan Ross. "When I called him, he was playing Blueprint (his breakthrough 2001 album that vies with The Black Album as the best hip-hop record of the Noughties -- but you've got both of them, right?) in the gym. I've been invited to the White House a couple of times. Hopefully, we'll keep him in for eight years, so I'll have time to get there."

His outstanding music is just the start of the phenomenon that is Jay-Z. "My brands are an extension of me," he once declared in a brilliant piece of personal brand building. "They're close to me. It's not like running GM, where there's no emotional attachment." He once rapped: "I'm not a businessman, I'm a business ... man." Other memorable lines include: "I'm far from being God, but I work god-damn hard," and, "Who better than me? Only The Beatles/ Nobody ahead of me/ I crushed Elvis and his blue suede shoes."

Part of the beauty of the rise of Jay-Z is how he is a self-made man. "I was forced to be an artist and a CEO from the beginning," he says. "So I was forced to be like a businessman because when I was trying to get a record deal, it was so hard to get a record deal on my own, that it was either give up or create my own company."

"In hip-hop, it's always been about the culture," he continues. "It's not just music, it's fashion, it's business, it's lifestyle. I'm an entrepreneur. This allows me the freedom to do all those things without it being a fight."

Jigga is a graduate of the school of hard knocks. He grew up in Brooklyn's infamous Marcy Projects. Deserted by his father at an early age, he shot his brother in the shoulder after a row over stealing his jewellery.

In 1999, he was arrested in a New York nightclub for stabbing producer Lance Rivera. He received three years' probation rather than a maximum sentence of 15 years. He called the incident "a wake-up call to let me know it could all go down the drain; it could all be taken away". He hasn't been in trouble since, despite the hilarious Jigga-Bad Cop call-and-response verses in 99 Problems that begin with "in my rear-view mirror, it's the motherfucking law".

These misdemeanors clearly wised him up and his primary vice appears to be being a prolific workaholic. "The average rap life is two or three albums," he once said, sagely. "You're lucky to get to your second album in rap." Last year's The Blueprint 3 is his 11th studio album.

However, it has to be admitted that they're not all brilliant. I am not much of a fan of his "retirement comeback" album Kingdom Come (2006), but The Blueprint (2001), The Black Album (2003) and The Blueprint 3 are stunning.

Empire State of Mind, featuring Alicia Keys, was one of the biggest hits of last year. When he performed it before the World Series -- which the New York Yankees historically won -- it was priceless to hear him rap: "I made a Yankees hat more famous than the Yankees can."

Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, celebrity brainiac and a New Yorker, astutely said: "As excruciatingly self-referential and self-congratulatory as [Empire State of Mind] is, it is also perfect, because it's about the most excruciatingly self-referential and self-congratulatory city on Earth."

It must be said, for all the post-Glasto plaudits, Jay-Z has only really honed a good live act in recent years. I recall one appearance in the Point being a let-down, which is a common problem with so much live hip-hop. Glastonbury 2008 spectacularly marked a moment when live hip-hop came of age and ranks alongside Kanye West's orchestra show as the two best rap productions of the past decade.

Jigga is informed by all sorts of music. Eyebrows rose all over the world when he showed up at a Grizzly Bear show with Beyoncé. "Grizzly Bear is an incredible band," he subsequently raved. "What the indie rock movement is doing right now is very inspiring. It feels like us in the beginning. When rock was the dominant force in music, rap came and said: 'Y'all got to sit down for a second, this is our time.' And we've had a stranglehold on music since then. So I hope indie rock pushes back rap a bit, because it will force people to make great music for the sake of making great music."

Friday night at Oxegen promises to be a biggie. A diverse main stage bill sees Jay-Z and Arcade Fire go back to back on a delightfully eclectic evening. It could be a momentous show and yet another milestone for the King of Rap. He's already crushed Elvis and his blue suede shoes. The next chapter is bound to be riveting.

Jay-Z plays on Oxegen's main stage at Oxegen on Friday, July 9,

Irish Independent

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