No other rapper's lyrics have been decoded (shout to dream hampton!) as exhaustively as Jay-Z's. His virtuosity is a given. The fact that he packs his bars with oblique references and multiple layers of meaning is so well known that it's a challenge to make anything subtle. By contrast, Kanye West (who was once considered primarily a producer who aspired to rap) presents his lyrics pretty much at face value, laying his cards flat on the table. Both are master craftsmen, and super famous to boot, and their real-life narratives are so well-known that their celebrity informs their lyricism.
The third volume of Jay-Z's Blueprint trilogy was a declaration of sovereignty. Having retired his retirement and resigned his presidency of Def Jam, Jay was now in military mode as the emperor of Roc Nation, demanding pledges of allegiance and all-black uniforms with loyal henchmen Rihanna and Kanye West at his side. When Jay says "I gave Doug a grip and lost a flip for five stacks" the Rap Genius crowd knows right away that he's talking about paying Universal Music Group CEO Doug Morris $5 million to buy out his own recording contract so he could launch Roc Nation. (And the fact that he reportedly flipped a coin to decide certain aspects of the deal.) Jay's nonchalant about it at first ("I'm a couple bands down and I'm tryin' to get back") but then he doubles back to emphasize exactly how many commas and decimal places he's talking about—just so you know who you're dealing with. In his next verse Jay throws in a show-offy double entendre ("They should throw their hand in 'cause they ain't got no spades" refers to the rules of the card game and the rules of balling in the club with expensive bottles.)
But the real stunt is how Kanye comes in and steals the whole show with a single verse. And he does it with the passion of his lines like "Next time I'm in church, please: no photos, "a reference to the paparazzi staking him as he mourned his mother's death. The rest of the verse is a meditation on the dilemma of celebrity that plays off Rihanna's wailing hook in ways too complex and profound to enumerate. "This the life that everybody ask for" Ye asserts, even as he admits that his stunting ways will make it impossible to find true love. "I can spend my whole life goodwill hunting" he raps but he knows he'll never find it. What he will find is physical beauty, expensive shoes and cars, and endlessly flowing Riesling. It could be worse. —Rob Kenner