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pop dust 40 Jay-Z
Posted on 08/04/2011 at 11:30 PM

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From the beginning of his career, Shawn Carter announced himself as the best rapper around. Many hip-hop artists have made the claim over the years, but only a handful have backed it up like Jay-Z. And none have combined swaggering star power with technical skill the way Jay has. He’s a larger-than-life pop presence who also happens to be a great artist, even if his last few solo releases pale compared to his 1996 to 2003 run of albums. He’s also become a pop-cultural icon while mostly hanging onto his street cred, a name known to grandmas that still commands critical respect.

NownessNOWNESS: Jay-Z is still easily the most relevant 40-something in the game, though it feels like he always keeps one foot in “too big for this pop shit” retirement just in case. Still, his last album (2009’s Blueprint 3) contained his biggest hit ever in Alicia Keys collaboration “Empire State of Mind,” and he’s half-responsible for one of the year’s most anticipated albums and tours: the Kanye West collaboration Watch the Throne. (14/20)

ResumeRESUME: Hardcore hip-hop’s hit a rough patch commercially, especially given its total chart dominance at the end of the 20th century, but Jay-Z continues to sell records in quantities that only a handful of rappers (most notably his protégé Kanye West) can still match. All but two of Jay’s 11 albums have gone to No. 1. (Two of his collaborative albums, The Best of Both Worlds with R. Kelly and Collision Course with Linkin Park, have also topped the charts.) Strangely, he‘s only had one No. 1 solo single, 2009’s “Empire State of Mind,” but given the zillions of albums he’s sold since 1996, he’s probably not too worried. (10/10)

DramaDRAMA: Jay’s life had a lot more drama before he became so successful that scandal was less profitable than keeping his head down and maintaining a respectable image. Though he’s made no secret of his supposed criminal past in his songs, his only major dust-up with the law came in 1999, when he was charged with stabbing industry associate Lance “Un“ Rivera at a New York club. Details around the stabbing remain murky–Jay pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and got probation–but since then he’s been strictly business. (7/15)

Third-Best SongTHIRD-BEST SONG: Jay’s official greatest hits album was pretty lackluster, but the guy’s written more great songs than any other rapper of the last 15 years, so picking out his third-best was fairly agonizing. Randomly flicking through iTunes, we stopped on “So Ghetto,” an album track from 1999’s Vol. 3: Life and Times of S. Carter, where a bone-snapping old-school breakbeat from DJ Premier backs up one of Jay’s many casually virtuosic displays of badass bragging. (9/10)

Music VideosMUSIC VIDEOS: Jay‘s videos defined hip-hop’s splashiest era, when even broke rappers were conspicuously consuming past the point of reason, but when Jay rolled out that Love Boat-sized yacht in “Big Pimpin,” well, you knew it wasn’t a rental. But just watch “Hard Knock Life,” where Jay casually strolls through the hood. His onscreen self-confidence is magnetic enough that he doesn’t even need the high-life trappings. (7/10)

Live ShowLIVE SHOW: Speaking of self-confidence. Despite their arena-sized egos, most rappers seem lost on arena stages. Not Jay. Whether backed by the Roots or just a DJ, he can grip a crowd of 20,000 from the moment he casually saunters on stage. The last time we saw him, he did a joking medley of some of his biggest hits, dropping a verse or two before going “nah” and moving onto the next, as if to say “I’ve got so many great songs I don’t even have to really bother with this one.” (4/5)

Non-Musical VenturesNON-MUSICAL VENTURES: S. Carter is the hip-hop impresario par excellence. Jay will stay paid even if he never releases another record, with a portfolio that includes his own star-making label (Roc-a-Fella), an NBA team (the New Jersey Nets), a streetwear empire (Rocawear), and various endorsement deals from companies who need Jay more than vice versa. He’s also hobnobbed with President Obama while helping to get out the vote for the Democratic Party, reinvented himself as an author, earned the respect of rap-scorning Oprah and, well, we could go on.  (5/5)

Fashion/HairFASHION/HAIR: Well before Kanye made it safe for rappers to dress like hip humanities professors, Jay was one of the key figures in hip-hop’s shift to a more grown-and-sexy look, infamously favoring a button-down style over jerseys and jeans. If you spot a rapper sporting a sober, well-tailored business suit, it’s partly thanks to Jay’s influence. (3/5)

HotnessHOTNESS: Let‘s be honest: Jay is not a…conventionally attractive star. On the other hand, he gives off the kind of I’m-the-shit-and-I-know-it glow that makes you feel honored when he merely nods in your direction, which is its own kind of hotness. Plus he managed to snag the eye of R&B’s biggest bombshell, so he’s obviously doing something right. (5/10)

Who They've DatedWHO THEY’VE DATED: After a long courtship, he finally married Sasha Fierce in 2008. But long before that, the Jay-Z/Beyonce relationship gave pop a whole new definition of “power couple,” though the two are notoriously (and admirably, in the reality show era) press-shy about their union. (5/5)

Fan CrazinessFAN CRAZINESS: Plenty of people want what Jay’s got, but he’s inspired surprisingly few nutso stalkers. Hell, his craziest fan is probably Kanye, and that’s a whole other kind of crazy. (2/5)


—Jess Harvell

Click here to listen to the Popdust 40 mega-playlist on Turntable.FM.



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