Jay Z’s Biggest Hip-Hop Moments Since ‘The Black Album’
On November 14, 2003, Jay Z dropped The Black Album, his eighth and, at the time, final album. Less than two weeks later, during a show at Madison Square Garden, Jay officially "retired," ending the career of one of the greatest to ever do it. Ten years to the day later, of course, we know that Jay could never stay off the mic. In the intervening decade he's dropped five albums, scored films, got married and became a father, and delved into the wide world of sports while he expanded his business ventures to include nightclubs, liquors, and—briefly, at least—NBA basketball franchises (HELLO BROOKLYN!). 13 years after Jay Z first hung up his boots, XXL compiled Jay's 18 biggest hip-hop moments (leaving out his business and personal milestones) over the past decade.
Slightly under a year earlier, on November 25, 2003, Jay Z held his "final" performance ever at Madison Square Garden, documenting the star-studded show—which included appearances by Missy Elliott, Beyoncé, Ghostface Killah, Mary J. Blige, R. Kelly, Twista, Puffy, Common, Beanie Sigel and Pharrell, among others—with the theatrical release of Fade To Black. The film doubled as a retrospective of Jay's life and career interspersed with concert footage and Rick Rubin's taxidermy collection (what?).
Of course, by the time the documentary dropped, Jay had already returned to performing on the ill-fated Best Of Both Worlds Tour with R. Kelly, which was in the midst of falling apart and would eventually result in a $90 million lawsuit and the revelations about R. Kelly crying on tour and serving food at a McDonald's. But none of that takes away from Fade To Black, which captured an iconic moment in music history. But we all knew Jay couldn't stay away.
It was the end of one era and the beginning of another; Jay, Dame Dash and Kareem "Biggs" Burke, the three founders and owners of Roc-A-Fella Records, gave up their iconic label and sold it to Def Jam for $10 million. Yet as Roc-A-Fella was folded completely into the major label structure, Jay wasn't giving it up; the same day he was named president and CEO of Def Jam, putting him in charge of such rappers as Fabolous, DMX, Ghostface Killah and Kanye West, to name just a few. As a rapper-turned-businessman with a clothing line, Reebok deal and 40/40 Club chain, the move solidified Jay's ascendance into moguldom.
Not everyone wound up happy with the appointment, however; DMX later said he left the label due to Jay's management skills, and Hov himself described every meeting as "frustrating" in an interview with Rolling Stone. He eventually stepped down as label boss on January 1, 2008.
The beef between Jay Z and Nas was painful on a number of levels, not least of which being that it divided hip-hop over two of its most iconic MCs (though it did produce some outstanding music). But that all ended at Power 105.1's Powerhouse show in 2005, as Jay brought out Nasty Nas on stage and publicly performed "Dead Presidents" and "The World Is Yours," standing together for the famous photo that officially deaded the ill will. The two would collaborate on a number of songs throughout the years following, and Nas signed to Def Jam under Jay's leadership on December 23, 2006, turning their new-found friendship into a mutually beneficial business deal.
It was the worst-kept secret in hip-hop—Jay Z wasn't really retired. He'd been on a tour with R. Kelly and collaborated with Linkin Park (as well as his previously unreleased Unfinished Business album with Kellz) on remixed material, but it wasn't until 2006's Kingdom Come that Jay officially emerged from his self-imposed exile with brand-new material. Many, however, may have wished he'd spent more time kicking up his feet—it was widely regarded as one of his poorest efforts, despite the fact that it debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and wound up nominated for Best Rap Album at the Grammy Awards the next year (losing out to Kanye's Graduation).
"Show Me What You Got" was the album's lead single, and certainly made waves, but the album left many underwhelmed, particularly some of the rappers on Def Jam who started grumbling about their resources being funneled toward the boss' pet project. It may not have been Jay's best rap performance, but it was the gateway for him getting back in the game, and for that, at least, we can be grateful.
The Denzel Washington-starring film American Gangster was one of the year's highest-anticipated, and its release on November 2, 2007, was quickly followed by the release of Jay's album of the same name. Although not a soundtrack, it was a concept album based on the film's story of heroin dealer and drug lord Frank Lucas, with each track reflecting a different scene in the film. Washington had asked movie producer Brian Grazer to enlist Jay for the official score for the movie, but Grazer wanted the film to reflect the music of its period (the 1970s), which led to Jay's album. With a second full-length in under a year, Jay was officially back out on the musical forefront, and his resignation from the executive suite at Def Jam two months later would confirm his reinstated status as the best rapper around.
When Europe's premier rock and roll music festival Glastonbury announced that February that Jay Z would be one of the three headliners for the three-day event, it was met with sneers, mockery and a whole lot of questions from Britain's highbrow rock world. Notably, Oasis guitarist Noel Gallagher—who has rarely found himself at a loss for words—went on the offensive, saying the festival was wrong to highlight hip-hop artists, saying, "I'm not having hip-hop at Glastonbury." Sorry, Noel. Despite slow ticket sales—which were blamed on Jay, of course, though the fest did eventually sell out—the festival turned in another strong display. And Jay might have made the biggest mark of all; kicking off his headlining slot on Saturday night, Jay donned a guitar and opened with a cover of Oasis' karaoke favorite, "Wonderwall." Maybe Jay was the one to save Glastonbury after all.
Of all the projects released since The Blackout, none made bigger waves than the Blueprint 3 album in 2009. Recorded mostly in Hawaii, the album was supported by massive singles such as "Run This Town" and "Empire State Of Mind," both of which would quickly become arena staples. The album shifted nearly 500,000 copies its first week and broke Jay's tie with Elvis Presley for most No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200, Hov's 11th. Though unusually guest-heavy, the album was a mega-success, with the likes of Kanye, Rihanna, Jeezy, Alicia Keys, Swizz Beatz, Pharrell, Kid Cudi and J. Cole all swinging by for appearances.
Maybe the biggest legacy of the album was its first single, "D.O.A. (Death Of AutoTune)," which dropped June 5 of that year. Though he singled out artists like T-Pain as using the technology correctly (and slammed others who used it too liberally), the song caused a lot of friction for Pain, with many considering it a dig at him; Lil Wayne, among others, slammed the song in support of Pain. Nonetheless, the song earned Jay another Grammy, and the album—as Jay albums tend to do—went platinum.
By the summer of 2010, Jay was basking in the glow of another huge album and an exalted position in the hip-hop and business worlds, while Eminem was finally back on his road to Recovery. Em's album—which dropped that June—was a massive commercial success and returned him to a position at the top of the musical food chain. So when the two joined up for a mini-tour with two dates in each of their hometowns, the venues had to be as big as the artists they were supposed to house.
"We wanted to do something that would have maximum impact and allow them to get in front of their fans," Eminem manager Paul Rosenberg said to GQ in 2010. "We came up with this idea: Boom, something in Detroit and something in New York. The challenge was finding a time when the Tigers were traveling and the Yankees were traveling so that we could build a stage and take the stadiums over."
The result was two shows in both Detroit's Comerica Park and New York's Yankees Stadium, with each rapper enjoying the top headlining slot in their own city and employing a number of guests, from 50 Cent to Drake to Jeezy and Dr. Dre, and a coming together of two of the best rappers to ever do it.
When Decoded, Jay's official autobiography/memoir, was released, it finally put his life story—already documented in various forms on wax and film—on paper in his own words. But in addition to his life story, chronicling his come up in the dope game and transition into the rap game, as well as the problems and issues associated with being the most famous rapper in the world, there are notes on 36 of Jay's own songs, detailing their origins and meanings and giving the background story on many of his lyrics. Even Decoded's release had a sponsor, of course—Hova teamed with search engine Bing to release pages from the book, leaking them in a scavenger hunt across the site. Ever the businessman, Jay.
It was the album that everyone was waiting for, and it certainly delivered. Originally conceived as a five-song EP between Jay Z and one-time protege Kanye West, Watch The Throne evolved into something just as grand as its name, with rhymes dripping with swagger and braggadocio and the exact type of elite lyrical content that sharply divided opinion in a time period where money was tight for the majority of the country. Objectively, however, the album was outstanding, and the tour that accompanied it lived up to its billing; Jay and Kanye would perform "Niggas In Paris" up to seven times a night during a show, displaying an extravagance that, well, was fairly unprecedented. Ironically enough, though tracks like "Otis," "No Church In The Wild" and "Paris" got all the attention, it was the album's more quiet and tender moments—Jay's verse on "New Day," or both rappers' input on "The Joy"—that proved the real highlights. "Otis" put Hit-Boy on the map and earned them a Grammy, while "Church" and "Paris" would take home Grammys as well.
Jay Z's Made In America Festival in Philadelphia may have been the rapper's biggest branded product; the two-day fest, launched last September, was promoted by Live Nation, grabbed a major sponsorship deal with Budweiser, had a benefit tie-in with United Way and locked in cross-promotion via Facebook. But for Jay himself—who headlined and curated the lineup, bringing in stars from Rick Ross to Skrillex to Pearl Jam and Run-DMC—it was another feather in his cap.
"[It] piqued my interest as another way to make an iPod playlist that's gonna play for two days live," Hov told Billboard during the Fest's announcement that May. As for the fest itself, Jay joined Pearl Jam for a run-through of "99 Problems," Kanye helmed a G.O.O.D. Music set, D'Angelo actually showed up, Run-DMC reunited and Rozay stole the show from his MMG crew. Oh, and President Obama showed up, albeit via pre-prepared video, to urge all those in attendance to vote in November. Jay and Obama, together at last.
Jay Z's #FactsOnly and #NewRules campaigns may have become the quickest hashtag memes in history after his well-known Twitter Q&A in the buildup to the release of 2013's Magna Carta...Holy Grail, but the entire rollout saw Jay looking at new ways to innovate in a music industry that doesn't exactly know how to move forward. The biggest waves that crashed out of this involved his landmark $5 million deal with Samsung, which delivered his album to 1 million Samsung customers for free on the Fourth Of July. Billboard and SoundScan may not have accepted the deal as representing legitimate sales, but the RIAA did, sending MCHG platinum in a single day and forcing the RIAA to rewrite the rulebook for digital sales. #NewRules indeed.
Proving just how powerful they were as a couple, Jay and Bey embarked on the three-month 'On The Run' joint tour. The co-headlining summer tour took place from June 24, 2014 to Sept. 13, 2014, was accompanied by an HBO documentary and grossed $109 million.
- 14It was March 30, 2015 when HOV united Nicki Minaj, Kanye West, J. Cole and Beyonce with acts like Deadmau5, Madonna and Calvin Harris for the launch of his new artist-back streaming service Tidal. This $56 million power play on the part of Jay proved he was serious about getting into the streaming arms race and had the star power to back it up. In the months that followed, the aforementioned musicians began to premiere their music only on Tidal.
- 15Two months after he launched Tidal, Jay threw a concert specifically for Tidal users on May 16, 2015 called Tidal X: Jay Z B-Sides. Die-hard fans filled NYC's Terminal 5 for a two and a half hour show filled with Jay Z deep cuts and surprise guest stars like Just Blaze, Freeway, Memphis Bleek and his estranged friend Beanie Sigel.
- 16On June 20, 2016, Jay officially celebrated two decades in the rap game with his debut album 'Reasonable Doubt' turning 20. To celebrate the anniversary, Roc-A-Fella Records co-founder Karreem "Biggs" Burke held special memorabilia pop-up shops in LA and NYC, which Jay attended.
Rumors that Jay Z was working on a new album in 2016 went from whispers to roars when insiders close to Jay like Just Blaze and Roc Nation signee Vic Mensa said they had heard the new material and that is was "fresh as fuck." Jay also hopped on tracks for DJ Khaled, Remy Ma and Fat Joe in 2016, and dropped the heartfelt track "Spiritual" in July 2016 in response of the ongoing police brutality against Black people in the U.S.
On Oct. 20, 2016, is was announced that the Brooklyn boy was among the 2017 nominees for induction to the Songwriters Hall of Fame. If inducted, Jay Z will be the first rapper to ever receive the honor. Committee voting for the songwriters will remain open until Dec. 16, 2016. The new songwriters will be inducted on June 15, 2017. Fingers crossed for Jigga Man.