As we all (should) know, Jay-Z is not the greatest rapper of all-time. Of course, people like to pretend this at alarming rate these days but yet again, people seem to disturbingly like "Lollipop" at a higher rate than is naturally acceptable, so we cannot trust the opinion of the masses. As great as rapper as he is (but not the greatest), Jay-Z is responsible for a lot of annoying, awful trends in hip hop since his unfortunate ascendancy to the hip hop throne post-Biggie's death. He's directly responsible for rappers liking to front like they are an underworld boss/Fortunate 500 CEO because they "own" a clothing line and a vanity label filled with their childhood ganja toters; he's responsible for many a misguided young man who unfortunately feels that he can be both street and sophisticated by wearing a Yankees cap and Jordans with a blazer and a button up shirt; and most troubling of all, he's responsible for many less talented rappers to start believing that their too good to write down their own rhymes. This is what I'm going to be discussing today.
One of the more memorable scenes in Jay-Z's shamelessly self-congratulatory documentary, "Fade to Black", is the scene where Jay-Z explains the creative process behind his rhymes. Jay-Z after listening to a gaggle of a horrific sub-Kanye chipmunk soul beats finally stumbles upon a gem in the form of the Buchanan's "What More Can I Say?" and begins to mumble like a retarded street hobo for a few moments (or as he calls it his "rain man thing") before crafting an entire rhyme in his head without bothering to write it down. At one point, 9th Wonder, who must have stumbled into the studio in between projects of handing the same beat over and over again to Buckshot and the entire underground rap scene, looks as if he's seen god himself in the flesh as he witnesses Jay-Z craft a whole entire song in his head without once putting a pen to the pad. Admittedly, this is an amazing feat because most rappers who freestyle entire songs sound horrifically cliched and boring but Jay-Z has been able to amass one of the greatest discographies in all of music while not bothering to do one of the most fundamental practices of being a great emcee, writing. Now on the surface, this isn't necessarily a bad thing and would be something that would be quite impressive if the practice had simply stayed with Shawn Carter and not spread to the rest of the hip hop world but because modern rappers are nothing if not original, many of today's greats including erstwhile rapper royalty like T.I., Young Jeezy and Lil Wayne have decided they don't need to bother writing their rhymes down (as it gets in the way of selling cocaine and sipping syrup) and hip hop has suffered for it.
Like any great craft, rap lyricism is an intricate and difficult process that requires careful editing and re-writing. It's not something that the great rappers just jump into when writing a song. A well-crafted song takes time and effort to unfold as you not only can you build not only intricate rhyme structures into the song but complex metaphors and stories can be introduced as well. This is exceedingly difficult when you freestyle your songs unless you are a true once-in-a-lifetime genius because by it's very nature freestyling is an open ended form based on chaos and versatility. It's hard to write "Follow The Leader" when you are coming completely off the dome, call me a skeptic. Nas, once, dedicated an entire song to the process of editing your rhymes on "Book Of Rhymes" on God's Son in which he rhymes as if he's reading discarded song ideas that he found in boxes in his attic. In each verse on the song, Nas starts and stops different song ideas that he's had in the past, tossing away and dismissing ideas that seem like they could be winners in their genesis because Nas finds the rhyming subpar or the idea unfocused. It gives a glimpse into the creative process of a song writer as Nas meticulously crafts each verse until it's perfect (too bad his beat picking isn't as sharp.) and is why Nas' is one of the foremost writers in hip hop history. Regardless of how you feel about Nas' penchant for beats or his desire to make ill-concieved controversy baiting rap titles, Nas has never been less than clever and fresh with his rhymes. He remains one of the greatest writers of his generation because he's such a sharp and meticulous writer.
In my opinion, the greatest writer of all-time in hip hop music is Wu-Tang's resident obscene slang kicker, The GZA. GZA is a perfectionist when it comes to crafting the perfect sixteen bars because he shows the importance of using economy of words. GZA nevers wastes words, never adds a syllable when there doesn't need to be, and always makes sure his metaphors are clear and make sense. We all know his potency when it comes to lyricism when he crafts clever songs like "Labels", "Publicity", "Queen's Gambit", and "Fame" where GZA namechecks various real-life people, magazines, football teams, and music labels and is able to craft vivid narratives by rhyming those words only. This is only done because GZA takes the time to meticulously craft and edit his words. While some of GZA's later work is weaker comparative to his earlier stuff because of beat selection and production, GZA has never written a wack rhyme in his life. Period. His direct, economical style shows the power of writing your rhymes down and shows that you can be lethal when you use your pen. I have been often a critic of rhymers like Lil' Wayne for their forced metaphors and suspect similies and it's precisely because they don't bother to edit their material. It just pops into their head and they record on wax with little to quality control. Wayne and others are able to become undeniably profilic because of this but it keeps them from entering the pantheon of great rhymers.
It was welcome news recently when T.I. announced after his spectaculary idiotic assualt weapon possesion charges that he decided to write his rhymes down again on paper so I'm hopeful that his next album could quite possibly be his best one he's ever recorded. Jugding by the recent dopeness that was his new single that T.I. could possibly be headed that direction. T.I. already has massive flow so if he became a more consistent writer than the debate on who is the greatest Southern rapper of his generation could be answered and the national nightmare of Weezy's cough medicine soaked reign could be over. Call me estatic.
Ultimately, when you don't write your rhymes down your work suffers. Jay-Z was a tremendous rapper when he didn't write his rhymes down but one can only imagine if he bothered to sit down and think his rhymes completlely through. Perhaps, he wouldn't have blatantly stole so many lines from Biggie, UGK and others over the years and wouldn't have the dogged complaints from the naysayers that the best rapper of all-time can't possibly be such a shameless biter. So rappers don't be like Jay-Z. Write your shit down. You might just save yourself the embarrassment of making a song like "Sunshine." You'll thank me later.