How Will Jay Z Adapt to Rap’s Changed Landscape?

It's been four years since Hov's last record, and the rap world today is almost unrecognizable from the one he left.

Jay Z
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Jay Z

“Tell these other dudes it's a wrap / Get the fuck out the throne you clone, the king's back!”

Jay Z rapped this couplet in 2006, on his back-for-the-first-time single “Show Me What You Got.” It’s likely still how he feels, 11 years later. Over the past few months, all flashing signs have indicated that not-so Young Hov will hold down yet another summer with a new music project in 2017. He’s ramped up his guestappearances, been in the studio with superproducers past and present, and Jermaine Dupri even claimed to know the name of Jay’s next album (wild guess: UnTIDALed?). Perhaps most tellingly, Hova has been announced as a headliner for Austin City Limits, Made In America, and The Meadows Music & Arts Festival—he surely has better things to do than making festival rounds performing old material. But what more can he say? And, more importantly, how will it sound in music’s current climate?

Much has changed since Jay Z’s last album, 2013’s Magna Carta Holy Grail—itself a comeback LP, arriving four years after its solo predecessor, Blueprint 3. These days, Drake is dropping patois over Afrobeat tracks, Kendrick Lamar and Chance The Rapper have made spiritual rap great again, and—gasp!—Miley Cyrus has stopped twerking. Will Hov calibrate his music to fit an era in which mumble rap and bubblegum trap are actual subgenres?

No one likes to see an aging rapper wave-hopping. It reeks of midlife crisis. Fortunately, history suggests that Jay won’t embarrass himself in this manner—he’s always been much quicker to set his own trends (or kill existing ones). His last three albums feature time-tested regulars on production, like Timbaland, Kanye West, Rick Ross, Justin Timberlake, Nas and Pharrell, with only minimal sprinkles of newer names like Mike WiLL Made-It (who claims to have supplied Jay with more beats) and Travis $cott. Ever the adaptable MC, Jay will likely only make tweaks to update his sound. He’s reportedly recorded with trap god Zaytoven, but it’s probably not what you’d expect. “It’s not really trap beats,” Zay told HipHopDX. “He was looking for the more melody-driven [tracks]. So I picked out all the ones I feel that had the piano [and] strings but were still hitting hard.”

There is always room for more mingling with the new school, though, and Hov should take advantage. It’d be dope to give Roc Nation signee Vic Mensa a shot—imagine if he could reunite his newest Chicago protege with Chance The Rapper. Migos has randomly made fire music with Katy Perry and Sean Paul this year; Jay could certainly bottle-up and enhance the Atlanta trio’s energy in his own unique way. And hip-hop needs an encore to “Drug Dealer’s Anonymous,” last year’s poetic face-off with Pusha T.

As for lyrical content, there’s certainly ground for a topical guy like Jay Z to cover. There’s his passive-aggressive relationship with Drake, and aggressive-aggressive recent relationship with Kanye. America’s bozo-in-chief, obviously. He could rap about daddyhood, Pampers and being washed like he did on “Jay Z Blue,” Magna Carta’s most sincere track. Oh, and he’ll surely have something to say about a little album called Lemonade, on which an aspiring songstress named Beyoncé aired out his alleged adultery. Jay alluded to his wife’s latest project on Fat Joe and Remy Ma’s “All The Way Up (Remix)” by questionably flipping an old Guru line (“Lemonade is a popular drink and it still is”), but that was a cop-out. A new album from Jay would be the perfect time to share his side of the story—last year an insider told US Weekly that’s exactly what he’s preparing.

Overall, though, Jay Z’s mind seems to be fixated on two topics he’s covered throughout his career: net worth and his drug-dealing past. The Brooklyn legend just announced a $200 million renewed deal with Live Nation, and Forbes recently estimated his net worth at $810 million, so the opportunity is ripe as ever for him to boast about his money stacks. But he’s been getting involved in social justice, too. Jay executive produced the new docu-series TIME: The Kalief Browder Story, which zeroes in on an especially tragic casualty of a broken criminal justice system. And last year, he addressed America’s prison-industrial complex in an animated video called The War on Drugs Is an Epic Fail. So he’ll probably continue to rap his own brand of conscious rap, in which he reminds you of all the ways the system is stacked against those who look like him, and how he persevered.

Jay Z spent the first half of his career dropping albums annually, and paving the way for peers to play Follow The Leader. He’s no longer fighting for his throne—that’s long been solidified—but as he’s done on every album, he’ll surely bring some progression to the artform. We’ll just have to wait for Hov to show us what he’s got.

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