Somewhere between LOL and FML there was "TRL." MTV's Total Request Live debuted in September 1998. The early TRL charts were dominated by 'N Sync, the Backstreet Boys, Korn and their respective biters. Then, six weeks in, Jay-Z's "Can I Get A ... " video debuted at Number 10. It wasn't the beginning of his career as a rapper, but it was the beginning of his career as a major force in pop music.
Mainstream radio and TV presented the late-Nineties teenager with a weirdly extreme choice between aggro rock played by men in tank tops and mushy ballads sung by slightly smaller men in tank tops; Jay-Z presented a much-needed alternative. This is not to say that Jay-Z never wore tank tops, but he was (and continues to be) an exceedingly rare combination of intelligence, weirdness, seriousness and pop appeal. Go look back at those TRL charts and it's not hard to tell why a generation of musicians, critics and fans became so deeply connected to the lyrics of a dude who, supposedly, was describing a world that at least 50 percent of his fans "couldn't relate to."
In my lifetime, Jay-Z has, by far, been the most artful and exciting musician to consistently make hits, and I mean real hits — Top 10 singles deep into his career, like "Empire State of Mind." How many artists make it 15 years without embarrassing themselves, let alone while maintaining their relevancy?
I remember getting chills watching him perform "On to the Next One" at Coachella. He was wearing all black and standing in front of a giant video wall. I interpret that song as both an ode to creative ingenuity and a critique of infinite-growth capitalism. Admittedly, I was reading a lot about peak oil at the time, but c'mon, who else can inspire a crowd of 100,000 to throw their arms in the air while offering each individual brain in that crowd the opportunity to think critically about language and the state of the world today?
His lyrics are deep enough to demand exegesis (see: Decoded), at times, cute and playful enough to be memorized by every "mean girl" at my high school (see: his verse on Mariah Carey's "Heartbreaker"). On "Public Service Announcement," he described himself as being like "Che Guevara with bling on." Some people found this to be in bad taste, but it doesn't feel too off the mark to me. At the very least, I don't think anyone will take issue with the next line: "I'm complex."