Jay-Z's series of concerts opening up the Barclays Center in Brooklyn has provided us all with a nice little narrative arc for his career: Here's a guy who came up with nothing, ended up taking over the world, and now he's back in his old 'hood to share the wealth.
We went through Jigga's entire discography and scooped all of the references to Brooklyn he makes on his songs. Given that there are roughly 208 songs in his official body of work and we ended up with 67 references (a few tracks contain multiple nods to BK, but work with us here), Jay-Z has referenced his home borough on approximately 37% of his songs. Think about that—drop the needle on any Jay-Z song out there, and there is a one-third chance he's going to be talking about Brooklyn. That's huge.
The idea of tracking a rapper's career on the basis of how they talk about a single place provides a nice way of tracking their artistic progress. In the beginning, Jay-Z talked about Brooklyn because it was where he did his dirt—the song "Coming Of Age" is literally him picking Memphis Bleek up in a car and driving around Marcy, discussing the best way to make a million in a world that's structured to shut them out.
As Jay became a more well-established force within the New York rap scene, Brooklyn became a way of reminding you he wasn't to be fucked with. He might be getting brunch at the Four Seasons, but the goon squad was just a phone call away in Brooklyn. This was also a time in Jay's run when he was a street dude who wasn't fully comfortable trafficking in the higher echelons of culture. Brooklyn was a constant reminder of where he came from and who he was. Brooklyn served as a reminder that the guy with a No. 1 pop smash might be Jay, but so was the guy who allegedly stabbed Lance "Un" Riviera for possibly leaking Vol. 3… Life And Times Of S. Carter, and he was Brooklyn as fuck. As Jay entered the "icon" status of his career, he began to retain a sort of Jordan-esque flair for holding grudges, positively going in on guys like Joe Budden and Jim Jones, mere flies buzzing about his throne, for even possibly thinking that the hottest in NYC might hail from somewhere other than Brooklyn.
Odder still was Jay's post-Blueprint, pre-Black Album period, where he managed to squeeze off an Unplugged album with The Roots, The Blueprint 2 and Best Of Both Worlds. His Unplugged remains one of the best entries in the series, but Blueprint 2 is probably the most random album in Hova's discography, finding the God MC trading bars with Sean Paul, having Heavy D loop Cake only for Lenny Kravitz to sing the chorus, and even convincing Rakim to dust off the mic to rap with Dr. Dre. What you hear there is a man who reached ubiquity try to determine what, exactly, was the best way to maintain that ubiquity, searching for a sound that would connect globally while still keeping shit Marcy.
Somehow, he did this—having M.O.P. showing up on the remix to "U Don't Know" helped. Then, there's Best Of Both Worlds. Dear Christ, Best Of Both Worlds. A collaboration album with R. Kelly, produced by Trackmasters at their schlockiest, it's the type of thing that people tend to sweep under the rug when discussing Jay's legacy. If you've ever wanted to hear someone sound like they want to be anywhere other than the booth they're in rapping about cran-apple colored Benzes and trying to avoid R. Kelly's sneak disses on Sisqo, you should listen to it. Still, it contains a Jay line that's eerily prophetic: "Imma floss til they toss me a Bed-Stuy parade." I mean, the dude's got a stadium and a basketball team already. It's not out of the question.
As Jay settled more and more into his role as Rap Game Bono, Brooklyn took on yet another role still. WIth the proper amount of time sitting between him and his upbringing, Jay began to wax more and more lovingly about the streets that raised him, a reminder to us common folk that he, too, was once one of us.
Just as Jay rapped his way out of the projects and into within seven inches of President Barack Obama, we, too, can make it to the absolute top of American culture, provided we have prodigious rap skills, the business acumen of a one-percenter, and a little bit of luck. As long as we remember where we came from.
Written by Drew Millard (@drewmillard)