Happy Birthday JAY-Z: When Mr. Carter gave hip hop its own “A Star Is Born”

  /  12.04.2018

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One of the hallmark moments of Shawn Carter’s career will be how he broke twitter the night of his induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. On June 15, 2017, @S_C_ took to his social media platform to do the unusual: Personally tweet from his account, as he celebrated being the first rapper inducted into that hall of fame. In the first of what would soon promise to be an engaging night for followers, he thanked “all the people that have inspired me.”

Of those 15 rappers, he shouted out the likes of Rakim and Big Daddy Kane, as well as his starting mainstream mentor, Jaz-O. The Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac received nods, as well as new torch carriers Kendrick Lamar and Chance The Rapper.

By that point, fans started offering more suggestions and with each “Shit [I forgot these names]” tweet that followed the first, the number of rappers mentioned by Mr. Carter at night’s end accumulated to roughly 101 names (and that may not be a safe number to bank on from us or even JAY himself).

What made that moment significant was how Hov flipped his spotlight into modesty, opting to humbly celebrate the entirety of hip hop rather than just his contributions. His list of names had a little bit of everything hip hop. From the Golden Age vets that started the game, to his own generation of peers (both male and female), to the new school of charting artists, to alluding to his own wife’s second official rap moniker (“B a rapper too!”).

But, that wasn’t the first time JAY-Z officially name dropped those who have pushed his pen and the culture forward. Back in 2009 on his eleventh studio album, The Blueprint 3, the emcee foreshadowed his groundbreaking twitter moment through a deep cut titled “A Star Is Born.” And as he celebrates his 49th birthday today (Dec. 4) — and the film starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper still remain in our pop culture conscience — it would be fitting to show appreciation to that cut.

While I’m not going to list every hip hop giant named in that epic Songwriters Hall of Fame thread of tweets, here’s the full list of every emcee mentioned in “A Star Is Born”: Mase, Kanye West, DMX, Sean “Puffy” Combs, Lil Wayne, 50 Cent, Nas (through the mention of Illmatic), Eminem, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Nelly, Scarface and the Geto Boys, Ludacris, Drake, Ja Rule, T.I., Jeezy, Outkast and André 3000, Lauryn Hill, Mobb Deep and Prodigy, Method Man, Raekwon, Ol’ Dirty “Ason Jones” Bastard, Ghostface Killah and their entire Wu-Tang Clan.

Through “A Star Is Born,” we experience a boastful style of storytelling by someone who — at the point of The Blueprint 3 — had finessed his role as a lyrical grand marshall for hip hop. The song’s Yeezy, No I.D., and Ke’noe produced beat — which consists of grandiose horns, keyboard and a thunderous, boom bap applause underscoring “clap for ‘em, clap for ‘em” — matches the fanfare, rap royalty type of music JAY previously exhibited in cuts such as “Show Me What You Got” and “Roc Boys (And The Winner Is)…” Tony Williams soulfully sings “everyday a star is born” in the hook, as JAY encourages praise being given to the company he’s kept in rap history.

Usually when it comes to hip hop, there’s not much positive coverage when an artist releases an uplifting and candidly celebratory track such as “A Star Is Born.” In fact, upon the song’s release, critics such as Ian Cohen made unqualified statements about how the song “never allows any sort of torch-passing moments” (I personally can’t wait to disprove that claim a little bit later on in this article). Of course, The Guardian did its usual nitpicking of black-centric artistry when reviewing The Blueprint 3 — the words of Alexis Petridis referring to the auto-tuned effect used on Tony Williams’ singing vocals, as a contradiction to the message of “D.O.A. (Death of Autotune),” which was actually addressing rappers overusing and relying on the audio processing technique.

In recent years, there’s been many think pieces focused on the capitalistic side of JAY-Z’s body of work, particularly after 2017’s 4:44 and this year’s joint-Carter venture EVERYTHING IS LOVE were released. Through his waves of black capitalism and how many interpret those bars as snobbish and preachy towards his own people, his graciousness towards the art form of hip hop always prevails in those messages.

In the spirit of recalling familial archetypes that occupy our holiday dinners, it’s that kind of attitude in JAY’s artistry — equal parts skepticism towards how the community spends its money, and equal parts encouraging in the sense of “you can go harder because I had to and succeeded” — that makes HOV an uncle figure for most of his listeners. Even when you don’t want to hear that wisdom from the “other side of the hill” (as Jinx once put it in State of the Culture), you can’t help but to discuss and unpack what’s being said. That’s what the core embodiment of hip hop has always been about.

This is what makes “A Star Is Born” one of JAY-Z’s most brilliant cuts and overall top songs in his discography. It contains a roadmap to success in hip hop. Not just by JAY’s own standards and example, but that of others who inspired and competed against him. Through his bars and references, listeners are transported through a timeline of some of hip hop’s most groundbreaking and earth-shattering moments. These moments are the ones that helped shape the game’s unwavering legacy when the culture was starting to dominate sales and media, during Hov’s rise to veteran status.

On this track, he’s unafraid to shout out everyone he’s seen dominate a year in hip hop. Whether that be how “[DM]X caught lighter fluid” with a double album release in 1998 or how “Wayne [who] did ‘A Milli’ [album copies sold in a short span], 50 did a milli, Ye too, but what Em did is silly” because that “white boy” — as JAY jokingly refers to him — did manage to outsell most rappers during his start.

Hov’s even unafraid to mention his rap battle losses and some personal envy that propelled him to become a bigger star. There’s reference to the popular belief that Eminem out-rapped him on the first Blueprint’s “Renegade” and how his eventual rival’s “Illmatic was so ahead” of its time that competitors didn’t know what to do after it originally dropped in ‘94. Of course, there’s overcoming the “Takeover,” and making amends with Mobb Deep and Prodigy.

Still, through all that — as reflected in his third verse — “A star [who] was born — on December 4th.” JAY went from pushing dope on the street corner to having a corner office as the president of multiple companies such as Def Jam and his own record label, Roc Nation. Those business moves allowed the emcee more room to develop talent and observe who does what next.

The best moment of “A Star Is Born” comes with a “torch passing” JAY kept alluding to throughout his verses. There can be a room full of 100 people, but it only took one Hov to give J. Cole “the platform” to show out. Arguably one of the best featured verses of 2009, a debuting J. Cole receives “a slow transition from a little broke nigga from the ville” to a promising superstar with a lifesaving record deal, which has since pumped a hearty life into today’s oft-laden mainstream scene. This component of the song not only documents the effect JAY’s Blueprints had on a generation of rap succeeding him, but also reflected how he was onto the waves of rap’s new era coming into the 2010s.

“A Star Is Born” is rare amongst JAY-Z’s discography because it contains no animosity. It’s one billion percent celebratory — except for a diss towards R&B singer Monica with “Watch them get they Monica on all day/Hey, got so many different monikers but only one Jay”….. OK, let’s stop playing around and clarify I’m just kidding. The line is actually in reference to Monica Lewinsky and the many punny verses about her infamy. But, anywho….

Happy birthday Mr. Carter and thanks for giving hip hop its own “A Star Is Born.”

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