Jay Z Rapping Over Immaculate Horns, An Absurdly Detailed Investigation
The blaring sirens of an ambulance is a sound that will always be related to urgency, distress and crisis. Just hearing the ear-piercing noise will cause you to imagine the lifesaving truck speeding with a zest comparable only to a bat racing out of Hell. Just like a siren, there are certain sounds that can be related to actions and images. Movies about kings, emperors and tyrants often contain the sweet sound of trumpets as an indicator that royalty has arrived.
I’ve always loved how Jay Z demands the trumpets to blow on “The Ruler’s Back," a line he borrows from Slick Rick - who originally recited the very same words on a song with the same title - but Jay perfectly personifies a king’s return with the horns selected to play at the end of his verse. It’s a small detail, but one that has always brought the song to life for me.
Jay once proclaimed to have the best flow; to be the most consistent and most charismatic on the microphone. What the old Jay lacked in modesty was made up by his undeniable prowess for rhyming. He is a lyricist with a silver tongue, slick as they come, but he also has two golden ears for production choices. Something I’ve noticed over time is that Jay loves a good horn. There have been countless magical moments in his catalog where luxurious brass instruments have added a layer of ear-tingling warmth to his musical atmosphere. Jay and trumpets go together like leprechauns and pots of gold.
“Roc Boys” is one of the first songs that comes to mind. This is the American Gangster-era, post-retirement, married-to-Beyoncé Jay Z - a man who has carved his own class of wealth and fame. “Roc Boys” has always sonically represented opulence, magnificence and triumph - everything that Jay exuded in his career that very moment. If “The Ruler’s Back” was to signify a king’s return, “Roc Boys” is the sound of a war being won. These are the horns that should’ve played after David’s rock brought down Goliath, after the Greeks defeated the Trojans, and after Cleveland won that final game against Golden State; these are horns of victory. If you listen to “Make the Road by Walk” by Menahan Street Band, you’ll notice very little was done to the sample, it’s the trumpets added by The Hitman that really make the song pop. They gave Hov the expensive horns, the ones that are suppose to sound like they cost more than your mortgage.
“Show Me What You Got” is far from my favorite Jay Z song, but the saxophone that blows at the beginning and throughout the record is to ears what a Snickers is to a sweet tooth. Just Blaze took Michael McEwan’s riff and dressed it up around blasting drums and booming live instrumentation to make a song that feels like the rolling out of a red carpet. “Show Me What You Got” was the retirement-ending comeback single, so it had to sound big and boisterous. Jay Z and Just Blaze don’t do quiet. The two are responsible for the monstrous “U Don’t Know," where the horns are huge; Godzilla-sized and just as explosive as the mutated monster. Jay isn’t overwhelmed, he floats comfortably as if he’s not rapping on The Blueprint’s most chaotic production. Playing this in the morning will give you the energy of four cups of coffee and a shot of pure adrenaline.
Jay Z and Jermaine Dupri came together in 1998 for “Money Ain’t A Thang.” The record didn't become a commercial success, but the song has become something of a guilty pleasure for me - a fusion of southern bounce with an East Coast emcee. Jermaine put a cherry on top of the potential banger by adding horns to the end of the chorus. It’s impossible to hear the song and not want to drive a topless car with a topless model while Ace Of Spades spills on the leather seats.
One of the most famous Jay records, which features some amazing trumpets, is the Kanye-produced “Encore.” Jay declaring his retirement over the riff sampled from John Holt’s cover of “I Will” is a beautiful masterpiece. The lack of saxophone is the sole reason why I never cared for Collision Course's “Numb/Encore” fusion with Linkin Park.
There are very few reasons to revisit Magna Carta Holy Grail, but “SomewhereInAmerica” is a keeper. Jay Z referencing Miley Cyrus twerking still makes me laugh with a cringe, but it’s the trombone riffs that blow throughout the beat and the soft keys that help to make Jay’s flow tolerable. The Blueprint 3 is another Jigga album I don’t care for as a whole, but the Pharrell-featured/produced “So Ambitious” has been a favorite since 2009. As a storyteller, Jay always delivers when reminiscing on his humble beginnings. Pharrell delivered the warmest horns and a suave drum pattern to give the song an infectious groove.
Horns erupt at the beginning of Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love,” horns engulf the hustler anthem that is Jeezy’s “Go Crazy,” aggressive horns riff as Busta Rhymes and DMX get introspective on “Why We Die” - Jay Z can be heard alongside brass instruments on each song. A gentle saxophone is the first sound you hear when press play on Fat Joe’s “All The Way Up,” so it’s only right that Jay graced the remix with his vocals.
Jay’s love for the horn is a quiet attraction, but I believe there’s a pattern in the sound to which he’s attracted. I relate good horns in hip-hop to Jay Z. He has made the sound one of his signatures, one of his tricks. I’m hoping that his new album will be full of saxophones and samples. Trumpets and not trap. Jay Z with a touch of jazz and Just Blaze. TIDAL can have all my money for such an album.
By Yoh, aka Yohmaine Dupri @Yoh31
Photo Credit: BRWN Illustration