When I was 13, my school-bus journeys meant being glued to my tape Walkman, staring idly out the window as Korn, Silverchair and Nirvana blared away in my ears. My sister, three years older, was discovering Jurassic 5, early Destiny’s Child and Erykah Badu, so eventually I began to drop the grungy, nu-metal thing that Kerrang! was hot for; I was under the influence of something new. Being aurally fed a mixture of sounds from, not only the above, but the likes of The Fugees, Busta Rhymes, and Phi-Life Cypher, I was discovering the world of hip-hop. I changed habits, bought The Source magazine and some Adidas shell toes; soon enough that old tape Walkman was overrun with globally successful hip-hop artists and the (then largely unfamiliar) American label, Rawkus Records.
A year later, by the age of 14, my collection had grown to include artists not only on Rawkus, but Okayplayer and the BadMeaningGood series, with Stones Throw records – home to Madvillain, Quasimoto and J.Dilla – following suit. Some poppier songs from Kelis, Missy Elliot and Outkast had caught my attention; rummaging around in my sister’s room, I discovered a tape she had made from recording one of Tim Westwood’s Radio One shows. Getting out the Walkman I was promptly introduced to R Kelly’s Fiesta which seamlessly mixed into Guilty until Proven Innocent, a Jay-Z song which not only caught my attention with its catchy chorus and looping whistle, but lodged in my head for the rest of that day. So the following day I went straight to Fopp to purchase Jay-Z’s debut album Reasonable Doubt. From the opener Can’t Knock the Hustle, I knew straight out that Jay-Z wasn’t to be ignored.
At that time, Napster and Morpheus were a God-send, giving easy access to more and more Jay-Z. The sample from the musical Annie in his song Hard Knock Life had friends and I singing along and dancing around each other’s bedrooms to Big Pimpin’. I knew that I had found a hip-hop artist who didn’t give a shit if he was mainstream. Jay-Z was always pushing boundaries with what he could sample: everything from The Doors and A Tribe Called Quest, to Earth Wind and Fire.
Whilst Common, Mos Def and Talib Kweli were rapping about the language of love, Africa, and people robbing their grandmother, Jay-Z stuck to the popular themes of money, women and notoriety, embodying his success in the song U Don’t Know.
Jay-Z’s sixth LP The Blueprint was released in 2001, reaching number one in the U.S. on September 11th 2001. Mainstream fame here in the UK, not to mention popularity amongst my school friends, was certain. The Blueprint featured Kanye West’s production (before becoming a full-on recording artist himself) combining rawer songs such as The Takeover, with accessible club-hits such as Girls, Girls, Girls and IZZO (H.O.V.A).; the album received much praise and five stars from The Source.
When the rumours started that Jay-Z was retiring, I felt pretty gutted. Being only 16 in 2002, I never imagined that I would see him play live… and then a show at London’s Wembley Arena was announced. My friends and I begged and begged our cautious parents – whose associations of hip hop then were 50 Cent and his 9 bullet wounds – knowing we couldn’t miss out. Forking out £40 (which was a lot, back then even) we donned our tracksuits, straightened our side-ponytails and put on our gold hoop-earrings. Heading to London was exciting back then, and walking to Wembley surrounded by fans, it seemed, from all ages and cultures, we were both scared and in awe.
Jay-Z played a raw and raucous show, men were shouting and jeering, the women were squealing and squabbling. Despite a silencing freestyle rap and pyrotechnics heating up the arena beyond its already fiery atmosphere, Jay-Z never ceased in retaining an aura of someone still angry at the world. He may have been planning to retire back then, but even at that show something felt like it was incomplete.
So when another album was released in late 2002, by way of The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse – a double-album still featuring West’s production, not forgetting the Neptunes and Timbaland – I was surpised. What about retiring? What was with all these ‘featured’ artists? All of a sudden there were 25 songs to digest and it all felt a bit too much, like there was suddenly something Jay-Z had to prove, to keep his reign over mainstream hip-hop. There, my interest in Jay-Z started to wane and feeling a little disappointed I shelved The Gift & The Curse.
Fast-forward to February this year and I hear he’s coming back. O2 Wireless Festival in Hyde Park, as a headliner for an unusual mixture of a day which featured Hercules and Love Affair (not yet tired of their debut), The Cool Kids, Annie and Pete and The Pirates. Well, why not? I’m still into him. It’s a case of, I’m still a fan of (that old chestnut) “his earlier stuff”, but it’s true. I haven’t bothered with The Black Album, despite owning it. And the most recent American Gangster so called ‘concept-album’ about his experiences selling crack on the streets of the Marcy Projects, well I couldn’t even a name a song. O.K. so that’s pretty bad, but the classics such as Ain’t no Nigga, I Just Wanna Love U, Can I get A…and Song Cry were what I wanted to see.
It had been six years since my friends and I had travelled up to London to see him play last time. I felt that a lot would have changed: he’d married Beyonce, leading a very private life, hell he’s even made a concept-album… it screamed maturity and reinforced his ‘ruler of hip-hop’ status, because he seemed to have grown where other rappers have remained making commercial, radio-friendly records. I might not have bothered with his last few, but I certainly wanted to see how he would compare to the fire that he breathed at Wembley. So in early July, the boyfriend and I went for a day of fun in the park. Even this year it was £40 for the ticket but you certainly got your money’s worth.
Jay-Z came on stage at a little after 8.30pm to cheers and an almost unified salute of diamond-shaped hand signs, made by putting your index fingers and thumbs together. One guy to my right muttered to his mate “What’s that all about?”, “Dunno” he replied. See, this is why I’m a fan of “his earlier stuff” because that kind of thing, a mere hand gesture, is never forgotten and unites such a crowd.
The show itself was relentless, featuring brass and drum sections, DJ mixing various beats and Memphis Bleek providing supporting raps. The videos to accompany the songs were clever, creative, featuring everything from beaches and jet-skis to Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull. The crowd rapped along at speed, a guy to my left knew every word, and I surprised myself by being able to remember some, too. Occasionally, taunted by the girls and guys in the front row, Jay-Z joked with the crowd, telling one girl ‘not to do that’ because she was putting him off and thanking another for wearing a Barack Obama t-shirt. Big Pimpin’, Is That Your Bitch, and a rap battle between the sides of the audience for Jigga What, Jigga Who ensued; the 2002 show had tension, but here everyone was just having fun.
The highlights were endless, rapping his introduction to Umbrella, the crowd reacted by putting up their own umbrellas, a theme which remained for the rest of the show because he ‘liked how that looked’. Another was the moment when, after riling up the crowd with images of George Bush, Jay-Z rapped majestically about Hurricane Katrina and the devastation left behind: still there and still ignored. Things brightened up with a remix of American Boy, bringing in a rap about ‘London Bridge is falling down’ but slowing it down and emphasizing in fact he meant London breeches.
Jay-Z closed the evening with his chart-success Encore, drenched in blue light he moved across the stage like a man in absolute power, with the chant ‘what the hell are you waiting for?’ underpinning the song, those final minutes were epic. Here was a single man in front of thousands of others, proving just why he was still conquering. Retire? Give it ten more years.