Similar to poets, a rapper’s ability to use their words, line breaks, and overall literary structure in a unique and captivating way is what best defines a lyricist. These points along with the significance and relevance of an artist’s message, greatly effects how listeners determine a good lyricist from a great one. Thanks to these standards for lyricism, many of the subjective biases of mainstream music fans are avoided in hip hop. At the same time, because of the explicit content and often profane vernacular, hip hop is often neglected by the mainstream, causing lyricists to be overlooked as songwriters. Recently however, and largely related to an ability to create hit records while maintaining his lyrical identity, Jay Z accomplished yet another monumental feat that may shake up the seemingly limited perception of what defines songwriting. On February 22nd the ever so elusive Shawn Carter was formally acknowledged for his skills with the pen through the confirmation that he would be the first hip hop artist to be inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.


Pretty fitting for someone who came up with the late great pioneers, Pac and BIG, and literally helped take hip hop from an underground subculture to an international phenomenon. He really was a pioneer with respect to creating hip hop tracks of substance that penetrated the mainstream. Take for instance “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)”, the single off Jay-Z’s In My Lifetime Volume 2. By sampling “It’s a Hard Knock Life” from the 1977 “Annie the Musical”, Jay was able to play off the familiarity and sound of the young orphan Annie classic, while applying it to the then current conditions and reality of the ghetto. Or the epic display of lyricism and songwriting over the rugged rock/rap beat of “99 Problems” off of his classic The Black Album, where he assumes the role of a cop making a not so routine traffic stop and questioning himself for conveniently doing 55 in an unconventional 54. Whether listening to the words or not, all of these tracks showed his talent as a lyricist, all while crafting sounds of mass appeal.

jay.pngAt first glance Jay Z’s induction announcement should have been an obvious victory for hip hop, but it wasn’t long before the heavily opinionated fans started looking to poke holes in this decision. The most simple argument for many being the fact that Jay Z doesn’t even hold a spot in their ever so coveted “top five”. For others however, the resistance goes deeper than preference and his ability as a lyricist, but rather is related to the substance of his message. This is fairly understandable since hip hop was birthed from struggle and over time the subject of Jiggaman’s content seems to concentrated with raps about the riches he has stacked. Still, an argument can be made that rapping about the fruits of labor is a part of the sport. Just think about the marvelous drug slang of Ghost and Rae. If this is the case than perhaps the real discrepancy lies in the classification differences between songwriters and lyricists.

A lyricist’s number one obligation is to those that make an effort to listen, and prioritize the words of their message . Lyricists literally put this above all else and would never sacrifice the quality of their content for any sort of mainstream recognition. In this sense, true hip hop artists at their core are powerful communicators. However, 2000px-Parental_Advisory_label.svg_.pngthese artists are also limited by their strength because not everyone is fluent in hip hop. Aside from the fact that the beats are unique, the street vernacular that hip hop is comprised of essentially makes their music the linguistic equivalent of a different dialect. This places a unique strain on the relationship between artist and fan, and is often responsible for overlooked talent. From the perspective of a hip hop lyricist, it would be difficult to deny that the likes of Mos Def, MF Doom, Nas, Wu Tang, have not stayed more true to the textbook definition of the craft, but the reality is once you begin to put Jay Z under the songwriting microscope his defining qualities only become more clear.
In order for a great hip hop artist to be acknowledged for their unique lyricism they must transcend the boundaries of a genre, and not so simply, make great music. Like it or not, Jay Z has done this. Since the start of his catalogue with Reasonable Doubt in 96′, we have seen a handful of people earn respect as hip hop lyricists and mainstream artists, but none have been able to do both and stand the test of time. This is where Jay Z separates himself from the pack. Despite much criticism over time, from hip hop heads in particular, Jay’s ability to write hit songs while still maintaining his identity as a lyricist was instrumental in his being acknowledged as a masterful song writer. More importantly in an era where hip hop is truly the sound of a generation, hopefully this accolade has set the bar higher for the younger generation, serving as a reminder of what lyricism means to both songwriting and hip hop.