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.
At 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 also the substance of his message. Which is fairly understandable since hip hop was birthed from struggle and over time the subject of Jiggaman’s content seems to revolve around anything but. 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 of a songwriter and a lyricist.