Jay Z’s Songwriting Hall of Fame Induction Is A Big Deal
JAY-Z was inducted to the Songwriters Hall of Fame last month and garnered global praise. Even President Obama—now America’s de facto cultural ambassador—acknowledged the achievement, comparing JAY-Z’s slice of the American Dream to his own. JAY-Z turned to Twitter to respond to the adoration with humility—a simple thank you to his fans and family, rappers past and present that inspire him, and the culture. Specifically, Hip Hop culture noting that this was an achievement for us.
If you’re like me, until recently, the Songwriters Hall of Fame was rather obscure. The ceremony wasn’t as prominent in popular culture and was dwarfed in relevance compared to more famous awards—the NBA Hall of Fame, MacArthur Fellows, and the Nobel Prize to name a few. And to those that were more aware, the hall of fame was understood as a celebration favored by music industry insiders. Aside from music execs, who the hell cared?
Today’s digital music boom shifts music authorship to a mere liner note in favor of increased music access. The average music listener is now preoccupied with the breadth of music access rather than the depth of their musical experience. Heck, most song credits are virtually missing on streaming services. So, why exactly is JAY-Z’s induction to the Songwriter Hall of Fame one of his biggest wins to date? A few insights could help explain the fanfare.
In Hip Hop, songwriter and performer are usually one and the same. Few genres can claim this attribute as essential to their craft as songwriting and performing have increasingly become separate functions. It makes sense. Why turn down good songs from someone who can't perform them? Just turn them into a songwriter and farm out their work to those who can. However, most rappers don't have that luxury. They don’t dance, sing, play an instrument, or produce records. Their only appeal is in their ability to captivate increasingly fickle audiences with words and a presence all their own. While this may appear to be a small ask, quality individual output has its limits. The average rapper can sustain high performance for a handful of records. The very best can squeeze every bit of their lived experience within a great album or two. But, only the elite can continue to produce quality music for long periods of time. Quite an achievement in an industry that favors immediacy and personality over craft and substance.
It’s a herculean act to come up with your own work, perform it, and reach the top of popular music. It’s near impossible to do it consistently like JAY-Z. In comparison, most of his induction class were able to specialize in songwriting without the added task of performing the work. With that in mind, JAY-Z's accomplishment should not be understated.
II. Critical Acceptance
I’ll begin by stating that critical acceptance isn’t something Hip Hop should seek, nor is it something the culture needs. However, for a long time the art form was seen as a trendy party trick. While commercially successful, critical recognition was scant. Hip Hop was too brash and too vulgar and certainly not fit for our youth. But, there was no denying the movement.
Today, the critical examination of the art form is present in all platforms. So much so, criticism begins to grow stale. Most critics focus on how the genre influenced society. Very few consider the genre on its musical merits alone. How many scholars would name Big Daddy Kane as one of America’s greatest poets?
JAY-Z’s induction shakes things up because while Hip Hop was accepted in popular culture, did we ever compare the best to John Lennon or Bob Marley? Now, we can affirmatively say we have.
The music industry is cutthroat. You’re only as good as your next hit. This merciless mantra is concentrated within Hip Hop as the natural competitiveness embedded in the culture breeds a real life Game of Thrones. Last season’s hit rarely has staying power. And with a very low barrier to entry, hordes of people compete for the top spot. If you’re not the best, then you don’t matter. And, if you are the best, watch out.
At 47, JAY-Z has managed to stay relevant for decades while finding a way to push the culture forward. 4:44 is proof. Forever our spokesmen, his thoughts elucidate our own. His mistakes are our lessons. Any American hustler can relate to his truth no matter race, age, or creed.
JAY-Z’s induction is a big win for Hip Hop, and serves as inspiration to those coming up wanting to make their mark in the world. Well, things just became a little bit easier. Let us rejoice.