The Enigmatic Case of Jay-Z in the Twilight

Shortly after Frank Ocean’s release of ‘Chanel’, an interwoven tale of fashion, self-identity and sexuality, Ocean released the track ‘Biking’. Fans of Ocean were excited to see that Tyler the Creator was featured on the track, marking the end of a distinct pause in collaboration between the two formerly close artists. I’m a fan of Tyler myself, and while his verse on this track might be lacking in terms of lyrical substance, it has a stylistic excellence as far as flow and delivery go, and he talks about his own history with biking with a reference to ‘Slater’ (which is in itself a fantastic track off “Wolf”). But Tyler wasn’t what ultimately caught my attention when I saw the track released on Youtube.

It was instead a feature from Jay-Z that really piqued my curiosity.

Jay-Z is known as many things to many people. The business mogul responsible for launching Tidal. A pivotal figure in the history of hip-hop. The industry titan that between himself and Beyonce, have a firm grip on modern music culture. He was a close confidant of Notorious B.I.G, a ‘big brother’ to Kanye West and the facilitator for the come-up of many an artist (including Rihanna, J-Cole and Rick Ross to name a few).

Lately however, he’s been mostly known to the mainstream as the guy who cheated on Beyonce and inspired “Lemonade”, the rapper whose verse gets cut out of ‘Empire State of Mind’ whenever it’s played on AM radio, and more specifically to the Hip Hop community as a legend who has kind of fallen off with a plethora of mediocre verses on features as solid proof.

So along comes ‘Biking’ and suddenly I’m very excited to see what Jay-Z can do on a Frank Ocean track. Jay leads the song in with his signature “UH” followed by a stop-start intro that matches the beat pretty well. The lo-fi vocal creates a sharp contrast on two levels.

First with the clarity of the piano keys, that help the notes to harmonize with Jay’s sporadic flow, and second the spaced out, stream of consciousness mumbling of Jay’s verse contrasts with the transition into Ocean’s verse which is crystal clear and extremely melody focused. It also sets a tone in the song that is both nostalgic and introspective, and is an interesting way of introducing the track. In my opinion it does wonders for the overall atmosphere of the song.

That’s right. I’m a fan of Jay-Z’s verse. Or rather how he delivers it, and how Ocean has integrated it into the rest of the track.

However, the verse itself is nothing to write home about. It’s lyrically dense, yet sort of mundane. Why is he still jumping on tracks for the sole purpose of talking about how much money he has? Why not use this chance to explore something deeper? Or at the very least, different? What is his M.O? Are the artists that he collaborates with happy with the arrangement, or is it a case of you get what Jay-Z gives you? Too many questions and not enough features.

For context, Jay-Z is incredibly intelligent with his verses. He infuses a lot of wit and humour into his bars with his wordplay and double (or triple) entendres being the vehicle.

“I’m not a businessman;/I’m a business, man!/So let me handle my business, damn!” –  Jay on ‘Diamonds from Sierra Leone (Remix)’

But since the dawn of his career, Jay has rapped about the same few topics. Most of his verses at their core are just braggadocio about his wealth, his rapping ability or the journey from drug dealer to millionaire.

It’s just strange that he feels the need at this point in his career to jump on as a feature, deliver a verse that is sometimes good (‘Pound Cake’), sometimes not so good (‘Monster’) and then disappear like some kind of bargain bin hip-hop Batman.

When people talk about hip-hop legends retiring, two names often come up as  examples of what you should and shouldn’t do. You can either do an Andre 3000, disappear, sometimes for years at a time, just to come back and absolutely fuck the game up with a verse like the one on ‘Solo (Reprisal)’ on “Blonde”. Or you can do what Jay-Z seems to do and satellite artists, jumping on features to perform verses that dilute your reputation.

By no means am I saying that every single Jay-Z feature in the past 5 years has been terrible. I’m of the opinion that Jay’s verse on ‘Biking’ adds a lot of depth to the song, not only in a musical sense but in a contextual sense.

I’m just saying there’s a strange inconsistency in the way that he decides which track to jump on, and how he’s going to sound. For some fans, the result is nothing other than utter disappointment at the wasting shadow of a legend.

For others, their curiosity will be stoked by Jay’s sporadic appearance, like the person at the party you’re not sure is coming. You want him to come, but if they can’t make, it’s whatever. The anticipation comes from not knowing, so you nod your head to the music but always keep a steady eye on the door.

It just seems like at this point he might’ve just come in through the window and left before you even knew he was there, with all of his music deleted off your laptop and a bill for a 6 month subscription to Tidal as the only shred of evidence.

PS. I still think to this day, Jay-Z’s best feature is on Big L’s ‘Da Graveyard’ – Check it out here.


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