Jay-Z: King of America

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Not that Jay reveals much in the way of weakness or imperfection on his records. In a classic example of form following function, the breathtaking dexterity of Jay-Z's rhymes are almost always marshalled in the service of informing the listener of how great Jay-Z is. Some of the songs are peppered with details of back-story hardship (urban poverty, absent father, the drug violence of the Marcy projects), which mostly serve to make the ultimate triumph that much sweeter, a Horatio Alger story that Jay himself has tirelessly mythologized on every album. "I may have told, in my whole career, maybe 10 stories," he admits. "I deal with the same topics [over and over] in different ways." The average Jay-Z fan has never hit the same lows — has never, say, shot his own brother in the shoulder for stealing a ring, a true story Jay details on "You Must Love Me," from his second album — nor will most listeners ever swim in the rare waters of Jay's current world. Still, we love Jay-Z, for the same reason we hate taxes, any taxes, even those on the richest 1 percent — because America's founding myth is aspirational. Jay-Z's biography flatters our illusions about our own prospects, makes anything seem possible.

The waiter comes to take away the remains of Jay's second arugula salad, which he ordered immediately after finishing his first. With both salads, he gingerly peeled off all but a single piece of Parmesan, which was sliced in thin squares and stacked atop the lettuce. Jay is wearing a thin gray cardigan over a white T-shirt, expensively distressed jeans and unlaced Timberland boots, the latter despite the fact that, on The Blueprint 3 track "Off That," Tims are clearly declared "off," along with rims, Cris, oversize clothes and chains, black-versus-white, niggas still making it rain and (this last one seems unfair) "whatever you about to discover."

Many of the songs on The Blueprint 3 seem obsessed with relevance and the notion of being ahead of certain trends. On the most recent single, "On to the Next One," Jay declares, "Fuck a throwback jersey 'cause we on to the next one, and fuck that Auto-Tune 'cause we on," a theme echoed in "D.O.A. [Death of Auto-Tune]," Jay's broadside on the voice-altering software favored by young rappers and R&B artists from T-Pain to his own friend Kanye West (who, on "D.O.A.," can be heard shouting, "It's too far, nigga!" in the background). There's also the legacy-obsessed "Young Forever," one of the weaker tracks on the album, which Jay recently dedicated to Betty White during a performance on Saturday Night Live — briefly obscuring that, in rap years, he's already practically Betty White's age, a fact Jay doesn't deny.

"One of the reasons I wanted to make Blueprint 3 was because of the challenge," Jay says. "We've seen people like LL [Cool J] have longevity, and we respect the heritage of what he's done, but it's not like, right now, he's competing on the same level as Lil Wayne. So for me to still be able to compete at that level at my age, that's rarefied air. It's never been done.

"I think the problem with people, as they start to mature, they say, 'Rap is a young man's game,' and they keep trying to make young songs. But you don't know the slang — it changes every day. You can visit the topic, but these young kids live it every day, and you're just visiting. So you're trying to be something you're not, and the audience doesn't buy into that. And people wonder why. 'I made a great Southern bounce song!' 'You're from New York, and you're 70! Why are you bouncing?' I grew up in hip-hop. I don't want to stop listening to hip-hop when I'm 50 years old. But I don't want to listen to something I can't relate to. I can't relate to some guy in a big mansion telling me that he's going to shoot me. You're not believing that! He doesn't want to go to jail. He likes his house!"

Jay released his seminal debut, Reasonable Doubt, in 1996, when he was 26 years old. The album was a hit with hip-hop fans and critics, but it wasn't until he sampled the Broadway musical Annie, two years later, for the song "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)," that he proved the capacity for crossover pop appeal. After a string of massive hits that included "Can I Get A . . . " and "Big Pimpin'," he decided to "hit the reset button" and recorded arguably the best album of his career, The Blueprint, in 2001. Leaning heavily on old soul samples (and featuring a young producer named Kanye West), the album "was like going back to my roots, to how I grew up," Jay says. "Other than 'H to the Izzo,' there's no real singles. It was like, 'Fuck, enough already — how many times are you going to make another "Big Pimpin'"?'"

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Jay-Z, The Blueprint

In 2003, at the height of his popularity, Jay-Z released The Black Album and announced it would be his final recording. Soon after, he embarked on a disastrous tour with R. Kelly, on which the latter's erratic behavior included commandeering a McDonald's drive-through during a tour stop in St. Louis. (Today Jay says, "Didn't go well? That's the understatement of the year. I wanted to help him, and I'd tell him things that were maybe not my place to say. It was sad to see." The two haven't spoken since the tour's abrupt ending.) In 2004, Jay accepted the job as president of Def Jam. Though he speaks fondly of his time in the front office and points to numerous successes — he signed Rihanna, Ne-Yo and Young Jeezy and released hit albums by Kanye West — when asked if he can remember specific meetings where he felt frustrated by the label's inability to change, he says, "Honestly? All of them. The culture there has been institutionalized. You had record executives who've been sitting in their office for 20 years because of one act. 'But that's the guy who signed Mötley Crüe!' Seriously? That was fucking 25 years ago.

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Song Stories

“Try a Little Tenderness”

Otis Redding | 1966

This pop standard had been previously recorded by dozens of artists, including by Bing Crosby 33 years before Otis Redding, who usually wrote his own songs, cut it. It was actually Sam Cooke’s 1964 take, which Redding’s manager played for Otis, that inspired the initially reluctant singer to take on the song. Isaac Hayes, then working as Stax Records’ in-house producer, handled the arrangement, and Booker T. and the MG’s were the backing band. Redding’s soulful version begins quite slowly and tenderly itself before mounting into a rousing, almost religious “You’ve gotta hold her, squeeze her …” climax. “I did that damn song you told me to do,” Redding told his manager. “It’s a brand new song now.”

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