For some time now, Jay Z has been rap’s most involved elder statesman. He’s been a made man since the late ’90s, and for our genre, that’s an eternity ago. Jay keeps putting out music, but once he passed the torch and completed the trilogy that began with his most highly acclaimed record (and got married), he became an old timer. Jay has certainly come to carry himself in such a way too, always giving off a stately, polished, much-too-rich-to-be-here type of presence that surpasses even the most cocksure moments of his career’s earlier eras. With this status of hip-hop tenure, it’s easy to begin to slip, which Jay undoubtedly has. But every so often, a more passionate, inspired Hova comes back and reminds everyone just why it is he’s one of
hip-hop’s the world’s most powerful men, and one of music’s most respected artists. Here are Jay Z’s best verses since gaining Old Man Hov status. (Roughly, we’re drawing from everything 2010 and onward.)
10. “Heaven,” Verse 2, Magna Carta Holy Grail
Jay sounds particularly reinvigorated here. From the exasperated way he opens and delivers that clever little line about “baggage” at heaven’s gates, to the quick adoption of Chief Keef‘s flow, to that inspired image of the angel wings on his Lambourghini, Hov’s dancing all over the place in the best way possible. Also, relating religion’s dividing powers to his Maybach’s partition is just quintessential Jay Z as a philosopher / millionaire.
9. “The Devil Is A Lie,” Mastermind
After what most felt was an overall sluggish performance on Magna Carta, “The Devil Is A Lie” was what convinced many that Hov still had the fire in him, whether or not it was doused in a little D’usse (which gets a pretty terrible reference here). Jay’s nimble flow at the verse’s opening and his cocky energy throughout are what make his spot on Ross’s record special. Well, that and when he puts White Jesus in his crock pot, calling the accepted image out as bullshit, and adds soda to make Jesus (who is of course, Jay here) into his truer, blacker self.
8. “Mr. Nice Watch,” Cole World: The Sideline Story
This verse was widely overlooked, and even called “phoned in,” likely because of the seemingly repetitive nature of the first few lines. Jay does rhyme “band” with “band” and “wound up” with “wind up,” but the way he puts a new meaning on each repetition, and builds the complex punches around the theme of watches and time is pretty damn masterful. He goes on to, with quicker pacing, pull the same trick again, saying he’ll “Put the front on the back of the ‘Bach like a boss / So I’m fronting on niggas when I’m backing off.” Stunting at its finest.
7. “New Day,” Watch The Throne
The entirety of this verse’s strength comes from its second half. When Jay moves past the relatively uninteresting “Paparazzi sucks” warning to his future child, he begins to speak with true substance. Setting himself up with a great line about finding his path at 26 (which is the age he got his first record credit) and wanting to start his son out at 13, Jay gives commanding advice about speaking with conviction before showing some true vulnerability as his mind wanders to a possible split between him and the child’s mother. The last line really lets the doubt soak through, as Jay promises to never repeat his deadbeat dad’s ways. “Never repeat ’em…never repeat ’em,” he echoes, showing just how close Jay is worried he might be to his father.
6. “No Church In The Wild,” Verse 1, Watch The Throne
To properly open Watch The Throne in epic fashion, Jay bombards with vivid, dramatic images. “Lies on the lips of a priest” might have more distinct detail and tangibility than the entirety of Jay’s raps on the rest of the album. It’s moments like that that show the man still has a love for language somewhere inside him. Next, Hov quotes one of Plato’s most interesting questions: “Is Pious pious cause God loves pious?” The question is ultimately asking what humans truly bow to: the opinion of themselves or of gods, and further, who should interpret the word of god? Considering the album’s goliath nature, fewer questions could be more relevant.
5. “Glory,” Verse 2
There have been so few occasions throughout Jay Z’s career where he really wore his heart on his sleeve, but this song, and this verse in particular, might be the best and most bare example. Opening up with a line about his own subpar father, Jay pulls in that same doubt that we saw on “New Day,” but moves on to the more immediate concerns of being a (famous) father that that hypothetical on WTT could never reach, like spoiling Blue. The verse grows even more personal as Jay reveals that Bey miscarried on their first try for a child. It’s not a particularly innovative or slick line, but the joy in his voice when he says “nah baby, you magic!” is undeniably powerful and, most of all, human. Additionally, Hov closes out with those sweet lines about Blue being the child of Destiny, and while it’s a good punchline, it’s even better knowing that he really earned them by taking us through the troubling road to this glory.
You’re a child of destiny
You’re the child of my destiny
You’re my child with the child from Destiny’s Child
4. “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” (Remix)
While it was largely overshadowed by Kendrick‘s show-stopping third verse, Jay let off a pretty dope verse to cement his cosign of K.Dot as, already, one of the greats of his time. Jay’s a little slow getting started, but he does exude a solid distillation of that above-it-all Jay Z cool, as he feigns frustration with gossip and wind pockets: “Up in the clouds, me and my spouse…Turbulence, shit, I almost spilled my drink.” When he speeds up to a more rapid-fire flow, his writing gets denser. The “million dollar baby” punchline is great, but it leads to possibly the best one-off line of this entire era for Jay: “Sittin’ next to Hillary smelling like dank.” Jay Z tells truths (or at least plausible lies) that not only could no other rapper pull off, but few could even dream something that good.
3. “Shiny Suit Theory,” Pre-Act II
Much like that destiny’s child line from “Glory,” one of the best moments on Jay’s “Shiny Suit Theory” feature is a play with homophones and homonyms. Kicking off the theme of the “insanity” of how far Jay’s come from his humble beginning, he contrasts his time “warrin’ with undercovers” to landing on “covers with Warren Buffet.” It’s “warrin’ to Warren.” Jay Z’s genius has always been delivering wisdom and wit with slogan-like slickness. Jay only makes you work a little bit to understand him, and is always sure to make that work well worth it. By the time we reach the verse’s end and Jay Z is wedging the picture of his inexplicable success into a larger, societal frame, we truly understand the “insanity” theme. “Since when did black men become kings,” he asks. Well, those who see the truth and future are often pegged as crazy.
2. “Oceans,” Verse 1, Magna Carta Holy Grail
Right off the bat, Jay is making distinct use of a powerful pallet: white and (vs) black. He still smells like the dope he left behind, and, because of the white echoed in his robe and boat, he still looks like it too. Hov then jumps from one past that can’t be forgotten (his) to the grander past that’s also hard to ignore as we stand with him on his yacht: “the oil spill that BP ain’t clean up.” Few lines in Jay’s career have been darker or sneered harder than that one. Another great example of Jay’s gift for slogans comes soon after: “The only Christopher we acknowledge is Wallace.” Wrapped up in that one small moment is an entire movement of reclaiming America as black culture and black culture as American, complete with the recasting of heroes and villains. Next, Jay continues to wield his palette wisely, contrasting his black card with the white cotton of Hermés. Both black and white are found in wealth here; we see how similar opposites can be, and how close the distance between “old” and “new” money (touched on later in the album) can feel.
It’s hard to believe that the same rapper who spits that terrible Ocean’s 11 line (twice!) is capable of producing such thought provoking material for the same verse, but we’ve known Jay’s complex for some time now.
1. “We Made It” (Remix)
There is something about pressure of diss records that often bring out the lyrical best in them. “We Made It” is certainly a lot more complex than just being a warning to Drake, though. Even when Jay fires his real “shots” at Aubrey, he is light to medium teasing at best, calling him “Mrs. Drizzy,” before turning Drake’s (and many others’) complaints about Magna Carta on their head the way only a business–man could. Jay confronts the storied issue of what do street rappers write about once they’re rich and safe? by facing it head-on. He’s just rapping about his life in that moment, he argues. Further, in fact, he taunts, “Silly me rappin’ bout shit that I really bought,” as if going by any other model would be ridiculous. That’s the way a good Jay verse makes you feel–as if any other pick for the GOAT would be ridiculous. To paraphrase: you could have been anywhere else in the world right now, but you’re there with him.
Jay exhibits another great moment of condensing in the verse’s opening, as he wipes aside all previous shackles-to-jewelery punchlines with ease, painting the transition with refreshing crispness. The brevity of his motion–from slave ship to jeweler’s–somehow makes it all the more triumphant. From the very start, it’s a victory lap. Jay puts himself “onstage after 12 Years A Slave” with an Oscar-like bottle of champagne before going one step further, inserting himself in biblical times with an amazing stretch of lines. “Showed up to the last supper in some brand new J’s” might be the only line in Jay’s recent catalogue that can touch the Hillary line mentioned earlier.”You’re blind baby, blind to the fact of who you are, maybe,” stings with unbelievable precision considering how vague the actual wording and target are. Regardless of bearing in the real world, of which he often has tons, it remains that Jay Z is just on another level when it comes to saying the most piercing thing with the fewest words.
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